People celebrating around a lake Holidays and festivals have traditionally been times when families gathered, village-wide events were held and people left the cities or wherever they were and returned to their home villages. It has been said that eating is "the principal Chinese means of celebrating any conceivable event." Feasts, banquets and family meals are typically the centerpiece event of a holiday.Participation in rituals and festivals has traditionally been viewed as a way for individuals and groups to maintain harmony with the universe and keep yin and yang in proper balance. With Confucianism, it was important that rituals be conducted in a correct way.
Many holidays are celebrated using the lunar calendar rather than the solar one and thus the date on which they are celebrated changes every year. Some holidays are celebrated in certain regions, or among certain ethnic or religious groups. For such a large country there are surprisingly few festivals. During the Cultural Revolution the celebration of almost all holidays and festivals was frowned upon. In the decades since the Cultural Revolution ended some of the holidays and festivals have come back.
In the Mao era, many traditional holidays were canceled or downplayed. People who wanted to observe religious holidays had to do so through government sanctioned channels or in private. Model workers were rewarded with a week at the beach or a holiday at a state-run sanitarium. Otherwise, for most ordinary people vacations were an unknown concept.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life: “Paying a New Year call is a very popular tradition on the Spring Festival. The guests usually bring gifts, such as fruits, candies, cigarettes, or a bottle of wine. They can expect a warm welcome. However, greeting on the phone during festivals is becoming more and more popular in large cities today. Under the influence of Western culture, sending Christmas and New Year greeting cards is becoming a trend.[Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]
Some Chinese get bored during the holidays. Commenting on the death of a 26-year-old, 150-kilogram man, who collapsed after a holiday season gaming session that lasted for nearly seven days, a teacher was quoted as saying, “There are only two options: TV or computer. What else can I do in the holiday, as all the markets...and cafeterias are shut down?” [Source: Newsweek]
Important Holidays in China
Ancient Chinese zodiac Official national holidays are: Official national holidays are:
New Year’s Day (January 1 and 2)
Spring Festival or Lunar New Year (movable dates — three days — in January and February, 1st to the 3d day of the first moon of the lunar calendar)
Qingming (Tomb-Sweeping Day) in April
Labor Day, May Day (May 1)
Youth Day (May 4)
Dragon Boat Festival in May or June
Mid-Autumn Festival in September or October
National Day (two-day observance on October 1-2).
The dates of the Spring Festival, Qingming, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival are variable and determined by the lunar calendar. International Women’s Day (March 8), Youth Day (May 4), Children’s Day (June 1), Chinese Communist Party Founding Day (July 1), People's Army Day (August 1), and Teachers’ Day (September 10) are also celebrated but are not public holidays.
A lot of Chinese ethnic groups celebrate the Double Ninth Festival on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month as the senior citizens' festival, keeping alive the traditional custom of respecting the elderly. This custom is supported by the government, which wants families to take of their senior members so it doesn’t have worry about providing social security. Daughter's Festival (Chinese Valentines Day) on August 25 is observed by some people.
Chinese now enjoy three "golden weeks": 1) around May Day on May 1st, in which Chinese get three work days off; 2) around National Day on October 1st; 2) and around Spring Festival (late January or early February)
Holiday Travel in China
Chinese often travel in masse around the same time on these holidays, causing great strains on the transportation system and great inconvenience for users. Plane tickets are hard to get; the roads become gridlocked with traffic. It also a time when many offices and factories close up shop for an extended period of time.
Around 150 million people travel by train during the busy May Day holiday weekend. Sometimes passengers take up residence in the bathrooms and adults wear diapers to avoid trouble on trips that can last 36 hours. trips. One salesman told the Los Angeles Times. “The problem is that everyone goes at once. It’s impossible to get a ticket. And even if you do, it's way too crowded. It’s crazy.” A young Beijing woman said, "I took a 16-hour train trip home with a hard seat. I’ll never do that again. People were sitting on the floor, on tables. I waited hours to use the bathroom and when I got there passengers had turned it into a seating compartment.”
A plan is currently being pushed forward to give Chinese several one-day holidays spread throughout the year to relieve the crowding. The Spring Festival and National Day golden weeks would remain unchanged, but May Day holiday would be reduced to one day and days off would be given for cultural festivals such as Tomb Sweeping Day in April and the Moon Cake Festival in mid autumn. Many migrant workers don’t like the plan. They are willing to endure a tough trip home to enjoy an extended stay with their family.
May Day in China
May Day in the primary Communist holiday. In the Mao era, it was celebrated with parades featuring tanks, missiles, high-stepping soldiers, children waving red banners and choruses singing The Internationale in front of moribund party leaders at the Tiananmen Square reviewing stand. The holiday is also celebrated in many non-Communist countries as Labor Day.
National_Day at Tiananmen Square
May Day's association with the labor movement is traced back to holidays like Robin Goodfellow, a springtime festival popular with trade guilds. It became more established in 1886 when workers in the United States held a series of strikes on May 1st as part of their efforts to win a shortened work week. The event received international attention when a bomb was exploded in a crowd at Haymarket Square in Chicago. The trial for eight anarchist charged with the bombing (four of whom were executed despite little evidence) was the rallying point for the early workers movement.
In 1889, the International Working Men's Association (also known as the First International) declared May Day as the international worker's holiday and adopted the red flag in commemoration of those who spilled their blood fighting for labor rights. The first May Day celebration was held in Paris in 1889. It featured parades and speeches.
May Day was originally a pagan festival known to the Celts as Beltane and the Teutons as Walpurgisnacht. Commemorating the arrival of spring and celebrating fertility, it paid homage to deities such as Bel, Walpurga, Diana and Eostre (the source of the name "Easter"). The holiday was celebrated with drunkenness, promiscuity and disrespect for authority. The maypole was both a phallic symbol and a symbol of the European worship of sacred trees. The maypole dance was a drunken affair in which the aim was for men and women to become entangled and pressed close to one another in lustful embraces.
One British manifestation of the holiday was Robin Goodfellow, also known as the Green Man of Lord of Misrule, a satirical holiday in which peasants were encouraged to mock the aristocracy and the priestly classes. May Day endured for many centuries until it was banned in many parts of Europe by puritanical Protestant sects and then resurrected as a children's festival.
Birthdays and Valentine's Day in China
In China and other Asian countries age has traditionally been determined from the moment of conception not from the moment of birth. Babies were traditionally one year old at birth and people became a year older on New Year's day rather their birthday. The hour and year of birth are often are more important in terms of making an assessment using Chinese astrology than the date of birth. Sometimes a person’s age is rounded up a year to an even number like 90 for good luck after they die.
In the old days and still sometimes today, when a baby was one month old, a party was held for friends and family and the child was given a "milk" name like "ugly" or "stupid" to trick disease- and accident-bringing evil spirits into pass the child over. The custom dates back to a time when many children succumbed to disease not long after they were born and it was thought evil spirits mainly attacked attractive and smart children. Celebrations are often held for the birth of a son but not for the birth of girls. A man in the northeastern province of Jilin was arrested for celebrating his son's one month anniversary by driving through the streets and firing off more than 500 rounds from an anti-aircraft gun.
Western Valentine's Day, known as Lover’s Day, is celebrated by many young urban people in China. Young men take out their girlfriends or prospective girl friends on big, expensive dates. Flower sales are brisk. Many vendors double the price of roses and lilies during the Valentine's Day season. Many hotels ignore regulations and allow unmarried couples to stay in double room. There are similar traditions in Japan.
Chinese County Bans Birthday Parties
In 2021, a county in Yunnan Province in southwest China banned birthday parties and other celebrations, following calls from the central government to be more frugal and reduce bridbery. The BBC reported: “It also set out new rules for weddings and funerals, including a ban on cash gifts more than 200 yuan (US$31). The rules in Funing county only apply to all communist party members, civil servants and village organisation leaders — not to most residents. [Source: BBC, May 13, 2021]
“It is a traditional Chinese custom to give cash gifts at parties. “However, they have also been used as bribes for influential hosts. This is not the first time the Communist Party has cracked down on its members. In 2015, they were banned from extravagant eating and drinking, joining golf clubs or entering private clubs, as part of an anti-corruption drive. However, China has generally for years been calling on its citizens to hold more "simple and moderate" weddings, condemning "extravagance and wastefulness".
“According to the new directive issued last week, parties celebrating occasions such as birthdays, job promotions, or housewarmings, would be banned. There are also very specific rules some have to follow. Public servants, for example, will now be required to report wedding details — such as the cost and guest list — to the local government in advance. The number of wedding banquet tables should be no more than 20, with the overall guest list capped at 200, it added. The cost to feed each guest should not be more than 50 yuan if the banquet is held in a restaurant, and not more than 300 yuan for the whole table if held at home.
April Fools Is Not Funny as Far as Beijing Is Concerned
“April Fools is no laughing matter, China's official news service said on that day in 2016, arguing the Western tradition is un-Chinese. AFP reported: “The official news agency Xinhua's stiffly worded post on micro-blog Weibo declared: "Today is the West's so-called 'April Fools'". “The occasion "does not conform with our nation's cultural traditions, nor does it conform with the core values of socialism", it added. “"Don't believe rumours, don't create rumours and don't spread rumours," it said, capping off the note with a smiley emoticon. [Source: AFP, April 1, 2016]
“A cartoon accompanying the post showed two phones "spreading rumours." A finger pointing at them is accompanied by a word bubble that says "breaking the law".Spreading rumours online can be a violation of Chinese law. But the country's Internet users met the reminder with a collective guffaw, suggesting that in China, every day is April Fools. "You speak lies every day, use government policy, data, to trick the people in every way. What's up, what's down? What's wrong? What's right? We're on to you," one Weibo commenter said.
“Other users likened the post to the satirical American newspaper The Onion. "The most amusing 'April Fools' news is that Xinhua is seriously saying 'don't believe rumours'," said one. Even the Global Times, a paper closely tied to the ruling Communist Party, seemed to suggest Xinhua needed to loosen up. "How many friends have you fooled today?" it asked on Twitter — which is not accessible in China. "Here are some pranks for #Aprilfools." But Xinhua did not see the funny side. There were 36 replies to its original Weibo post, none of which was visible after comments were blocked.
Christmas in China
Christmas is increasingly being celebrated or at least recognized in China,As is true in other Asian countries such as Japan, Christmas is regarded as a holiday that celebrates wealth, prosperity, fun and commercial Western ways. Few Chinese associate Christmas with religion or Christ. Most Chinese either know little about it or associate it with commercialism and the West. Christians keep their celebrations quiet and discrete. The Chinese government recognized Christmas in 2004 by hanging decoration for what it called "Santa’s Birthday Bash.” It has banned Christmas music with overtly religious lyrics but welcomes the purchase of gifts and activities that stimulate domestic consumption.
Santa Claus is called Dun Che Lao Ren, which means "Old Man Christmas." In some places he brings gifts for good children. In other places he hangs out in shopping districts and performs the same duties as "door gods." Most Chinese know nothing about his origins or why he is linked with Christmas.
Many of the Chinese that celebrate Christmas are young people who see it as an excuse to drink and eat and have a good time. A 29-year-old architect told the Los Angeles Times, "People need excuses to have fun. There are too few Chinese festivals, and most of those are supposed to be family-reunion times, so we have to borrow holidays from the West."
More and more Chinese are getting Christmas trees and exchanging gifts and Christmas cards. One person wrote on a National Geographic bulletin board: "We have Christmas trees, candles and Christmas Father in the main commercial district. We have gotten used to exchanging our gifts before Christmas and write “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” However, we do not have a special name for it. Because most of us do not know what food should we have for it. On EVE, many young people, especially those in the big cities and universities, will get together, having a drink and dance through the night."
Christmas in Beijing and Xian
Christmas is celebrated in different ways by different people in different parts of China. In Beijing many people celebrate it even though it is still a workday. Apartments of affluent Chinese have $12 synthetic Christmas trees; waitresses at the pizza parlors wear Santa hats; department stores sell ornaments, Christmas cards and balls with falling snow; and hundreds of curiosity seekers line up to hear Christmas carols sung at midnight Mass at the Cathedral of Our Savior.
In Beijing and other cities Christmas has become a time to shop. Shopping malls are crowded and people seem more enthusiastic about spending than saving. A 29-year-old computer programmer told Reuters, “It’s not really a real holiday. It’s just a nice atmosphere for shopping and a chance to swap gifts with each other.
One Chinese businessman told the Washington Post, "I think celebrating Christmas here in Beijing is like a fashion. It's like McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken; when they came to Beijing, people rushed to go there, not because they enjoyed the food, but for the experience."
Describing Christmas in Xian, Pierre Fuller wrote in the New York Times: ‘storefronts blink Christmas red and green, Santa Clause poses for photos in supermarkets, employees don festive red caps and even the roaming garbage trucks sound a continuously synthesized variation of 'Jingle Bells'...On Christmas Eve close to a thousand people assemble beside the 16th-century Bell Tower, bearing the cold to hear caroling from a stage set up beside a massive Coca-Cola Co. sponsored Christmas tree...Large hotels’such as the Hyatt and Sheraton, as well as local ones — have lead the way in recent years by introducing holiday themes in their lobbies or on murals out front for their foreign clientele. Night clubs followed suit, many eager to create an international feel was well as promote their expensive foreign drink menus."
Most of the people who buy Christmas decoration are university students or businesses. The students exchange card and gifts and party until dawn. On Christmas Eve bars and nightclubs stay open all night to accommodate them. Businesses host parties for partners or clients. They spend on average between $6 and $50 on the decorations.
In rural areas and mid-size cities, Christmas receives less attention. One person wrote on the National Geographic website, "All over the world there is celebrating, but here in my city, Hefei, Province Anhui, there is no Christmas atmosphere." Another wrote: "Jesus is the reason for the season!...Even though you are not able to witness the decorations and festivals."
Christmas: Good for Business in China
Interest in Christmas has grown among ordinary Chinese. According to AFP, it has become “an occasion for shopping, with marketeers using everything from saxophones and Smurfs to steam trains to get consumers to open their wallets.” [Source: AFP, December 25, 2014]
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, Christmas “has become big business in China, with retailers enjoying some of their highest sales in late December. Even if the holiday is largely devoid of its religious connotations, gift-giving among young Chinese is soaring. Nearly every office building, shopping mall and high-end apartment building in China features Christmas trees in the lobby and Yuletide décor on elevator doors. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 25, 2014 ~]
“At stores across the country, the familiar strains of “Jingle Bells” and “Feliz Navidad” have become unavoidable. On the popular Chinese social media app Wechat — where greetings of Merry Christmas have become fashionable among friends — typing the word “Christmas” yields a blizzard of tiny spruce trees. The city of Yiwu, a wholesale commodity hub not far from Shanghai, manufactures about 60 percent of the world’s stuffed reindeer, elfish figurines and colored string lights, according to the Yiwu Christmas Products Industry Association, which counts 600 factories among its members. ~
“Although China’s growing love affair with Christmas tends to be a largely faithless dalliance, the number of Christian adherents has been soaring in recent years... For many young Chinese, however, Christmas is simply a lighthearted diversion that has little to do with religious faith. “Though it might seem a little bit shallow or consumer-oriented in China, people get great satisfaction on Christmas,” said Liu Xingyao, 22, a student at the Communication University of China in Beijing who is a practicing Christian. “They just believe the day is just an excuse to have some fun.”“ ~
Twelve Days of Christmas in China
On the first day of Christmas, China gave to me — A bird that can say ni hao. Jennifer Jett, wrote in the Beijing Review: A partridge in a pear tree has nothing on a caged bird that will greet me in Chinese as I pass by-although I worry that one day I'll try to engage the bird in conversation and find out it speaks better Chinese than I do. [Source: Jennifer Jett, Beijing Review December 25, 2008, China.org]
“On the second day of Christmas, China gave to me — Two lucky apples. China is understandably short on Christmas traditions, but there is one: Some people eat apples on Christmas Eve for health and good luck in the coming year. The practice stems from the fact that the Chinese for Christmas Eve, Ping'anye, contains the character for apple, ping.
“On the third day of Christmas, China gave to me — Three plastic Santas. For my Christmas decorations last year, I went to Carrefour to stock up on colored lights and Santa hats that were too small for my head. If only I had known about Beijing's Tianyi Market, which is probably better supplied than the North Pole. Want a life-size Santa and eight reindeer for your nonexistent lawn? (Or maybe a Christmas giraffe?) Done.
“On the fourth day of Christmas, China gave to me — Four shopping malls. In its typical pragmatic way, China has taken this major Western holiday and distilled it into its purest commercial form. The Christmas trees, Santa Clauses and shiny gift boxes in store windows all suggest one thing: shopping.
“On the fifth day of Christmas, China gave to me — Five Peking ducks! Who needs turkey or ham when you can feast on crispy, succulent roast duck? When I eventually leave China, I just might insist on continuing it as a holiday tradition. Turkey is too dry anyway.
“On the sixth day of Christmas, China gave to me — Six yams a-roasting. Cranberry sauce is hard to come by, but other foods available in China evoke a holiday meal back home. A hot sweet potato or bag of chestnuts from a street vendor is the perfect snack on a chilly winter night.
“On the seventh day of Christmas, China gave to me— Seven crowds a-shoving. Christmas is about togetherness, and you don't get much closer to people here than on the subway. My favorite part is when I find myself surrounded by fur-lined winter coats, spitting out tiny hairs. The subway is also a great spot to catch that other yearly ritual, the Christmas head cold.
“On the eighth day of Christmas, China gave to me — Eight horns a-honking. “It's not exactly silverbells, but all the hustle and bustle lends Chinese cities a certain holiday cheer — even if a chorus of car horns at four o'clock in the morning shatters peace on Earth and seriously erodes my goodwill toward men.
“On the ninth day of Christmas, China gave to me — Nine cellphones ringing. It doesn't compare to the 600 million text messages sent on Spring Festival Eve this year, but cellphones rattle constantly with holiday greetings over Christmas as well-often between friends making plans for a big meal out on Christmas Eve.
“On the 10th day of Christmas, China gave to me — Ten vendors shouting. In China, there is no excuse for Christmas shoppers stumped for gift ideas. From Hello Kitty thermos sets to Yao Ming bobbleheads, the markets have something for everyone-and if you're truly stuck, half a dozen people will be right there to guide you.
“On the 11th day of Christmas, China gave to me — Eleven carols playing. It's no surprise that Starbucks started piping in Christmas music in November. But I didn't expect to hear the same music last year in a suburban shopping center, far from the downtown core where most foreigners congregate. I guess I wasn't the only person there whose music collection includes A Very Special Christmas 1989.
“On the 12th day of Christmas, China gave to me — Twelve laoren laughingChristmas is more popular among young urban Chinese than their parents or grandparents, but older people gathered around a mahjong game remind me of the lighthearted spirit and good company that make holidays special in every country.
Anti-Christmas Efforts in China
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “There may be no exact translation for “humbug” in Chinese, but in recent days, as popular fervor for the trappings of Western-style Christmas enveloped this officially atheist nation, the defenders of traditional Chinese culture have fought back with Scrooge-like zeal. University students in the central province of Hunan held an anti-Christmas pageant with banners declaring “Resist Christmas: Chinese should not celebrate foreign festivals.” Students at a university in northwestern China were forced to endure three hours of propaganda films, including one glorifying Confucius, the state news media said. Faculty members reportedly stood at the doors, making sure no one tried to sneak off to partake in illicit Christmas cheer. “Be good Chinese boys and girls, and oppose adulation of foreign festivals,” read one banner strung across the campus of Modern College of Northwest University in Xi’an.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 25, 2014 ~]
Although xenophobic rumblings against Christmas have emerged from time to time, the seasonal surge of anti-Santa activism this year suggests that the Communist Party’s continuing campaign against Western values, and what it sees as the culturally corrupting fare of Hollywood, is taking hold in unexpected ways...hard-line traditionalists and Communist doctrinaires say the growing prevalence of Christmas is a tinsel-draped Trojan horse that aims to subvert traditional Chinese culture. At Modern College of Northwest University, the school that barred students from leaving campus on Christmas Eve, officials explained their opposition to the holiday in a microblog post run by the institution’s Communist Party Youth League. In recent years, more and more Chinese have started to attach importance to Western festivals,” it said. “In their eyes, the West is more developed than China, and they think that their holidays are more elegant than ours, even that Western festivals are very fashionable and China’s traditional festivals are old-fashioned.” ~
“As photographs of anti-Christmas events circulated on Chinese social media, there was resistance that at times swamped the voices of Christmas opponents. “If one day, Europeans, Americans and other East Asians were to take to the street and demonstrate and boycott the Chinese Lunar New Year, I’d like to see how Chinese nationalistic advocates feel then,” wrote one blogger, Wu Zhongzhan. Another popular commentator, Yao Bo, said that those attacking Christmas would do well to focus on cultivating traditional Chinese culture. “Respect for tradition is not about boycotting others, but staying true to yourself,” he wrote. “Tradition will never be revived by boycotting others. Boycott only makes it buffoonery.” ~
Chinese City Bans Christmas in Schools
In 2015, the Chinese city of Wenzhou banned schools from holding Christmas events, spotlighting Communist Party suspicions on the depth of Western intrusions into Chinese culture. AFP reported: “The government education bureau in Wenzhou, an eastern Chinese coastal city sometimes called "China's Jerusalem" because of its large Christian population, banned schools from holding "Christmas-related" events, the Global Times reported. Local officials "hope schools can pay more attention to Chinese traditional festivals instead of Western traditions", said the tabloid, which has close ties to the Communist Party. [Source: AFP, December 25, 2014 ^^]
“Authorities in Wenzhou this year launched a demolition campaign aimed at local churches, with more than 400 forced to remove visible crosses and some completely destroyed. The ban came as a university in central China required students to watch a documentary about Chinese sage Confucius instead of celebrating Christmas. "Be good sons and daughters of your country, stand against kitsch Western holidays," a banner on the campus of Northwest University in the ancient city of Xi'an said, according to photographs posted online. "Resist the expansion of Western culture," read another. A university spokesman told the state-run Guangming Daily that the school appealed to the students to pay more attention to Chinese traditional culture, and not to "idolise foreign festivals". ^^
“The newspaper added: "Each year Christmas brings debate, with one side saying that the festival can bring a lot of new fun things, and another side saying that we should not fawn over foreign things and overlook Chinese traditional festivals." China's Communist party periodically issues broadsides against "Western cultural infiltration" amid growing consumption of foreign movies, music and other goods.
Image Sources: 1) People celebrating, All Posters com Search Chinese Art; 2) Spring Festival travel mess, China Trends; 3) Lantern Festival, CNTO; 4) Others, Taiwan Tourism Office.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2021