Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in China

Around this time of year, it isn't uncommon for people in the US to ask me, "Is Christmas celebrated in China?" So, I'll share some thoughts on what I've experienced. This post is not intended to be all-encompassing nor will it explore how Christians in China are (and are not) able to express their religious beliefs during the holiday.

While there are millions of Christians in China, the vast majority of Chinese are not Christian. However, at least in several of the larger Chinese cities I've been in during the holiday period it is not uncommon to see Christmas decorations at places such as shopping centers and restaurants. Also, Christmas music can sometimes be heard playing in such places (I once heard Christmas music playing at a Hunan-style restaurant in Shanghai in mid-June -- they had no idea it was Christmas music). My sense is that much of this visible "celebrating" of Christmas is simply people wanting to participate in what is viewed as a Western tradition and not a religious holiday. And at least some of it appears to be commercially motivated.

This generic template of numerous conversations I've had in China as Christmas approaches helps provide a sense of how Christmas can be perceived:
Chinese Person: What will you be doing for Christmas?
Me: Nothing special, I don't celebrate Christmas.
CP: Really?!?!? Why not? You're American!
Me: Yes, I'm American, but I'm not Christian. I'm Jewish.
CP: So what?
Some will then point out that they celebrate Christmas despite not being Christian and ask why it would be any different for me. Christmas has as much religious connotation for them as Halloween does for most Americans.

This short report by The Christian Broadcasting Network (hat tip to M.I.C. Gadget) about the growing Christmas tradition in China mirrors some of what I've found -- particularly in the interviewees' responses to questions about the meaning of Christmas:

For more color on Christmas in China, below are several photos of decorations (and hats) I've seen in Wuhan, Hubei province (map) the past few days. To be clear, the photos are very much cherry picked and are not intended to imply that all of Wuhan is decked out for Christmas. It definitely isn't. But particularly in many shopping areas, one can feel some of the spirit of Christmas -- at least in a commercial sense.

Outside a large department store

Some decorations inside the department store

I'm willing to bet few understand why the term "X mas" is used.

A small store selling Christmas decorations

A shoe store

Another department store (FYI - Chocoolate is a fashion brand from Hong Kong)

Hair salon

A department store at a very large and relatively empty shopping mall


Family wearing their Christmas hats

Finally, my comments above may have left some readers wondering, "What does a Jew in China do on Christmas Eve?"

Well, I can happily say I do the same thing as many Jews in the US where most places are closed that evening.

I go out to eat at a Chinese restaurant.


  1. I heard quite a few variant jokes on Jewish folk going to eat at Chinese resturaunts on the BBC Xmas eve segment. Lighthearted humour by two Jewish comediennes.

    Non-Christian gentiles curl up with a good book over Xmas or at least with someone who has read one.

    I enjoyed ploughing thru a mass of libary books and dvds, since I'm of the view that Chinese food is simply over-rated.

    To state the obvious, Xmas in China has little to do with theology and more to do with name brand consumerism. 60% of post Xmas sales in London this year were purchased by Chinese tourists, a fact which lead the head of the the Chanber of Commerce thewre to wax in almost orgasmic terms.

    In my neck of the woods, Xmas was all about family and old friends, major sporting events and volunteering. This says a lot about the contrasting civil societies. (I'm leaving out Chinese New year of course.)

  2. There's been some interesting work done by sociologists on the connection between Chinese food and American Jews in New York. I may share more on that later.

    Your alternatives to Chinese food sound good, too. Actually, as a kid my family would sometimes go to the movie theater. Sometimes there'd just be one other family there.