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Christmas in China makes more sense than you think

December 19, 2010

This is the Christmas display outside the Grand Gateway mall in Xujiahui (10 minute walk from my apartment). The mall is frequented by local Chinese.

I’m leaving for the airport in an hour, but what the hell – one more post for the road!

It’s Christmas time, and Shanghai has decked the halls. While I haven’t been surprised by places like Starbucks putting out all their Christmas decorations, I am surprised by the local Chinese stores and restaurants that have put some serious effort into creating Christmas cheer. Some of the most unexpected places have strung up lights, put out a tree, and have “Merry Christmas” banners and pictures of Santa Claus.

Shanghai is the most international city in China, but still the expats only make up a tiny percentage of the almost 20 million people who live here. So what’s the deal with Christmas in Shanghai?

Now, obviously, any commercial enterprise loves a reason to sell more stuff, and Christmas is the perfect opportunity. But according to my Chinese colleagues at work, a lot of Chinese, particularly younger Chinese, celebrate Christmas.

The more I thought about China’s other major holidays, the more Christmas seemed to fit into the picture almost seamlessly. I’m not talking about the religious Christian holiday, mind you, but the commercialized version created in America and exported worldwide. (Bet all those decorations help our trade deficit.)

The big Chinese holidays, like the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Spring Festival, tend to have the following characteristics:

  • They are gifting holidays – gifts are super important;
  • They celebrate a season;
  • People go home to see their families;
  • There’s lots of holiday-specific food and treats to eat (like Mooncakes during the mid-autumn festival)
  • They incorporate symbols and traditions.

Sounds a lot like Christmas, don’t you think? We give gifts, celebrate Winter, go home, eat candy canes and Christmas cookies, and set up Christmas trees, wreaths, and colorful lights. And Santa is ubiquitous. In fact, it’s almost too perfect. The only thing that’s real weird is… well, Christmas isn’t a tradition in China.


Of the many insightful things Rick has to say, one thing that really struck me was when he observed, “it really only takes one generation to make a new tradition.” If my time in an a cappella group is any indication, he’s absolutely right. Or perhaps better proof, my time as a history major.

Here's how Sinofied Pizza Hut is capitalizing on Christmas in China (and giving people heart attacks in the process).

Traditions change all the time. They also change and adapt to different cultures, different eras, and different palates. Businesses in China area already creating a Christmas with Chinese characteristics. Check out Pizza Hut (left). Also, Christmas has become a “bar and club” kind of holiday for urban youth. In China, Christmas is… hip. None of the traditional baggage of the Christmas of the West. I’ve even heard Christmas songs, pop-i-fied, in Mandarin Chinese (notably in McDonald’s). Weird to think, this is probably their first exposure to this music! And it’s pop. They won’t get the Bing Crosby version.

Commercialized Christmas seems like it might just slip right into Chinese culture and spread. The economy is so important in China, and since Christmas is celebrated here mostly in a non-religious way AND it promotes shopping by Chinese consumers, the government will only support it. As long as it doesn’t get religious.

I’m heading to the airport!


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