China’s War on Christmas: Are Western Holidays Challenging Traditional Chinese Culture?

  • Why is Christmas controversial in China?

With glittering mistletoe hanging in malls, sparkling neon lights attracting visitors, and gingerbread houses selling out quickly, China is long ready for Christmas, a western religious holiday. As one of the largest manufacturers of Christmas accessories sold in the US, roughly 80%, China has mixed feelings towards Christmas and many other Western holidays.

Source: Kerry Center’s Official WeChat Account

On Jan. 25, 2017, the Chinese government issued a statement on “The Development of Chinese Traditional Culture Project,” encouraging local governments to implement the regulation. Soon after this, many provinces’ education bureaus issued directives (in Chinese) instructing schools “not to celebrate western festivals such as Christmas, including putting up decorations, posting related messages or exchanging gifts. According to the Associated Press, at least four Chinese cities and one county have issued a ban on Christmas decorations.

The controversy aroused debate over the roles Christmas has played in China over the past few years. A Chinese elementary school teacher told Pandaily that the regulation aims to “guide youths to learn traditional Chinese cultures and resist blindly following Western festivals.”

Nonetheless, many young Chinese people do not agree with the authority’s move on cracking down on Christmas. Cecilia Fang, a college student, told Pandaily that there should not be any conflict between promoting Chinese traditional festivals and welcoming foreign holidays.

“Boycotting Christmas cannot alleviate children’s lack of awareness of Chinese tradition,” said Cecilia. “China’s Spring Festival is widely celebrated around the world, so being a multi-cultural country is very important in this globalized era.” Chinese New Year, often accompanied by fireworks, red lanterns, and dumplings, is an official holiday in more than 8 countries, and celebrated in many others. As of yet, no foreign government has made any attempt to squash the celebrations of China’s most important festival.

  • Christmas as Marketing Opportunities in China

For many young people in China, Christmas is merely a jubilant shopping festival and has nothing to do with religion. Shopping centers in China are fully decorated weeks before Christmas to create a joyful atmosphere for consumers.

Source: Kerry Center’s Official Weibo Account

According to a report from Chinese ride-hailing company Didi, 25.67% of users went to shopping centers and 18.23% went to bars and nightclubs on 2014’s Christmas Eve in Shanghai. Nearly 50% of users went straight to high-end entertainment places after work.

Millennials and Gen-Z find this festival especially appealing as they get a day to reunite with loved ones and make short trips. A report from Mafengwo showed that “Christmas Disney” was the top destination in keyword searches in 2020. With its Christmas fairy-tale scenes and atmosphere, Disney has become one of the most romantic places for visitors on Christmas Eve.

E-commerce platforms are also using this holiday to create discounts and attract shoppers. According to interactive Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo, the sales of Christmas sweaters, deer antler hair accessories, and red scarves rise during Christmas, and most orders are from young consumers.

Source: ZCool

Translated as “平安夜” which means peaceful evening in Chinese, Christmas Eve has a special meaning in China and people will give each other apples wishing for a safe and prosperous year. Apple, translated as “píngguǒ (苹果),” is very similar to Christmas Eve’s Chinese translation, “Ping’an Ye (平安夜).” Hence, fruit markets also wrap apples in colorful packages for sale during Christmas.

  • Foreign Cultural Influence vs. Chinese Cultural Confidence

Recently, Chinese historical clothing from the Han Dynasty, Hanfu, was combined with Christmas elements and the designs are trending online. Incorporating Western elements in traditional Chinese clothing is welcoming a new age of cross-cultural progress.

Source: Weibo
Source: Weibo

However, not everyone agrees with the cross-cultural revolution. In 2014, college students wearing hanfu gathered in Changsha and protested in front of a Christmas event in a shopping mall. The signs read, “Boycott Christmas; Chinese don’t celebrate Western holidays.”

Many people expressed different views about this incident and debated on Weibo, China’s largest social media platform. “It is right that we do not celebrate Christmas,” wrote a Chinese netizen that supports the ban. “We blindly follow the West and have ignored Chinese traditions.” Some people disagreed with the view and said this only shows that the government is not confident about traditional Chinese culture.

Source: Weibo

Despite regulations and arguments against Christmas celebrations in China, people should have the freedom to choose what they celebrate. Promoting Chinese traditions and celebrating Western festivals can co-exist without the concerns that one will encroach on the other. In the age of globalization, we are hoping to see a more open environment to exchange different cultures. Ultimately, no country can live without the influence of foreign cultures.