Updated: Jan 8
A Christmas tree next to a Pagoda © Chandrasekaran/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons
In the Western countries, the two winter festivals during which the biggest celebrations are held are Christmas and New Year. In China, New Year, or Spring Festival, is one of the most important holidays as well, but unlike the Western one, it follows the lunar calendar. It’s an ancient tradition deriving from a well-known legend. On the contrary, Christmas celebrations have been imported from the West and often Chinese people don’t even know its origins, although youngsters love celebrating it. This piece further analyses the story and significance of the two most appreciated end-of-the-year festivals in the Middle Kingdom.
Christmas can’t be defined as a traditional Chinese festival but, especially in recent years, it has gained more and more popularity across East Asia. In China, the culture of which lies in fusion, the celebration of Christmas has acquired Chinese characteristics. Some argue that the increasing fascination towards Christmas derives from the long temporal gap between the Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year: people are looking for a way to enjoy themselves. But there are mainly two reasons for the spread of this phenomenon: the ever growing size of the Christian community in the country, and the business opportunities in a globalised economy.
nThe first Christian missionaries started arriving in China in 625 AD and settled in Xian (Li, Zhang, 2010). According to official figures, today the Christian community represents approximately 1 percent of the population of China; however, according to other estimates it might be much larger, because of the great number of underground churches that are not taken into account in government statistics (Sigley, 2006). This community celebrates Christmas without frills: at Christmas Eve, authorised churches organise the midnight mass, but people of faith mainly reunite in their own homes, although the government discourages such gatherings.
Actually, the Communist Party of China has always had a troubling relationship with religion and related celebrations (religions were even banned during the Cultural Revolution). Christmas doesn’t represent an exception: in 2017, the CPC issued a statement on «The Development of Chinese Traditional Culture Project» that forbids members of the party to celebrate any Western festival, including Christmas, and encourages provinces to do the same. Many local governments banned Christmas decorations, along with the celebration of this festival in schools (pandaily.com, 2020). Not only does the report consider the celebration of Christmas a religious practice that therefore shouldn’t be followed by CPC members, but also as a sign of a «cultural invasion» (Lam, 2017) that should be avoided at all cost in order to keep Chinese traditions alive and avoid the penetration of Western imperialism in the country.
However, given the multicultural nature of China, even a Western tradition such as Christmas can achieve peculiar Chinese characteristics, making it a fusion between two different cultures: for example, in recent years, people started giving each other “peace apples”. The Mandarin word for «Christmas Eve'', 平安夜 (pinganye) sounds similar to the word for «apple», 苹果 (pingguo): this kind of wordplay is typical of Chinese culture. There are also restaurants offering a unique Christmas dish, coming from the Jiangsu province: 八宝鸭 (babaoya), or Eight Treasures Duck (studycli.com, 2021), a duck stuffed with eight ingredients including mushrooms, rice and meat. Finally, another cross-cultural element is the Christmas hanfu: the hanfu is a traditional piece of clothing from the Han dynasty which is trending on Weibo lately because of the combination with Christmas symbols, colours, and decorations (pandaily.com, 2020). This fact sparked some controversies because of the supposed threat to tradition.
These practises prove that Christmas in China tends to transcend religious beliefs: the majority of people who celebrate this festival aren’t Christian and, in some cases, they don’t even know the story of this Western festival (Sigley, 2006). Businessmen take celebrations as an opportunity to make money, as they increase the domestic demand (Li, Zhang, 2010). Christmas decorations are hung in public very early and are often removed many weeks after the celebrations. This is true especially for shopping malls, where Christmas trees and glimmering lights are meant to create a festive atmosphere in order to attract consumers. Shops usually hold special sales, just as online platforms do, and surveys show that domestic consumption increases during this period, mainly because of decorations and gift-giving, especially among younger customers (pandaily.com, 2020). A proof of the importance of Christmas for foreign business is the promotion in Dalian which, being a «special economic zone», attracts lots of people from Japan, Russia, and Korea (Li, Zhang, 2010).
To be fair, even if the popularity of Christmas in the Middle Kingdom is relatively recent, the vast majority of toys and decorations production has been «made in China» for many more years: in 1999, nearly 80% of Christmas decorations imported in the USA were made in China. In 2002, this country produced and exported Christmas-related products in the whole world, the total value of which amounted to 1.5 billion dollars (Sigley, 2006).
According to the majority of young Chinese people, Christmas is a festival to be spent with friends. They enjoy shopping, parties, and Christmas dinners. Children are fascinated by the decorations and, of course, love presents. Many Millennials and Gen-Z even consider it as a sort of “Valentine’s Day” to be spent with a romantic partner. Being an unofficial holiday, Christmas is free from obligations, such as travelling long distances to visit relatives, and instead is focused on personal pleasure. In fact, it is often defined as a “democratic festival”. According to a report from DiDi (a famous Chinese ride-hailing company), 25% of Shanghai users went to shopping centres, 18% went to bars and nightclubs, and 50% went to high-end entertainment places on Christmas Eve. On the contrary, Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, is a very traditional celebration and is heavily family-oriented.
Chinese New Year 2022’s celebration will take place from February 1st until the 16th. New Year falls on February 1st and the public holidays are from the 1st until the 7th. The New Year is determined by the lunar calendar and is the first day of a new moon after the winter solstice, explaining why the New Year is also called the Spring Festival, because the Chinese New Year marks the beginning of spring. Preparations for the new year begin on January 24th until the 31st. The year 2022 is the Chinese zodiac of the black water tiger.
Chinese New Year follows the legend of the mythical beast Nian, who shows up every New Year’s Eve and must be scared away by setting off firecrackers and fireworks, putting red on the house doors, or using the art of calligraphy to write New Year greetings and wishes on red paper: for example, writing 福 fú (blessing) on red paper and putting the writing upside down, meaning that the blessing falls on your head when you enter the house. During the period, the family is reunited, as well as friends and colleagues. This festival is known as the world’s largest human migration: since it is the celebration where a meal must be shared with family, hundreds of million people travel within China, from the urban area where they work to their hometown village, to be reunited with several generations of family. Couples living in cities are reunited with their children living with their grandparents in the countryside during this festival. Being a national holiday, it is the most important festival for China (National Geographic).
Chinese New Year has traditions such as offering red envelopes, or 红包 hóng bāo. The envelope is red as it is a lucky colour for China. According to legend, to keep children safe from the demon Sui, parents gave them coins to play with. As the legend goes: One New Year’s Eve, a child was given eight coins to play with to keep him awake. The child wrapped the coins in red paper, opened the packet, rewrapped it, and reopened it until he was too tired to continue, and fell asleep. Then his parents placed the packet with eight coins under his pillow. When Sui tried to touch his head, the eight coins emitted a strong light and scared the demon away. The eight coins turned out to be eight fairies. From then on, giving red envelopes became a way to keep children safe and bring good luck. Those receiving an envelope are safe for the new year from the demon. Regardless of age, anyone can receive a red envelope. The tradition is to put new bills in the envelope and the person receiving it must hold it with both hands and shouldn’t open it in front of the person that gave the envelope. With the development of WeChat or other social media, electronic red envelopes are more common. The lion and dragon dances are another tradition during the festival (China Highlights).
Seven lucky foods must be eating during Chinese New Year:
Fish for prosperity
Dumplings for wealth
Spring rolls for wealth
Good fortune fruit for fullness and wealth
Sweet rice balls for family togetherness
Longevity noodles for happiness and longevity
Glutinous rice cake for a higher income/position
Lucky food must be served during the sixteen days of celebrations as preparation for a prosperous new year (China Highlights).
A schedule, known by all Chinese, is in action for the festival: the house must be cleaned and shopping must be done during the 23rd and 29th of the 12th lunar month (meaning before New Year Eve). On the 30th of the 12th lunar month (meaning New Year’s Eve), homes are decorated, envelopes are offered, and a big family dinner is organised. On New Year’s Day, fireworks and firecrackers are set off, and greetings are said to everyone. Between the second and the seventh day, relatives and friends are visited. On the fifteenth day, the Lantern Festival and the last day of the New Year celebrations, sweet dumplings are eaten, lanterns are prepared and more fireworks are set off (China Highlights).
Different greetings and wishes are said for the New Year (China Highlights):
新年好 xīn nián hǎo, meaning, “Happy Chinese New Year”. The formal way is: 新年快乐 Xīn nián kuài lè which is also said on the 1rst of January.
恭喜发财 gōng xǐ fā cái, meaning “Happiness and prosperity”. It is mostly said in Guangdong Province. The Cantonese way to say it is: gong hay fat choy.
大吉大利 dà jí dà lì, meaning, “Lots of luck and profits”
心想事成 xīn xiǎng shì chéng, meaning, “May all your wishes come true”
事业有成 shì yè yǒu chéng, meaning, “Success in your career”
阖家欢乐 hé jiā huān lè, meaning, “Happiness for the whole family”
For the year of the tiger: 虎年大吉 hǔ nián dà jí, meaning, “Wishing you luck in the year of the tiger”.
The Chinese zodiac, or 生肖 shēngxiào (meaning: ‘born resembling'), is represented by 12 animals. In order, they are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Each year in the repeating zodiac cycle of 12 years is represented by a zodiac animal, each with its own reputed attributes. Chinese people believe that a person's horoscope, personality, and love compatibility are closely associated with the person’s Chinese zodiac sign, determined by the person’s birth year (Chinese Highlights).
Different stories and legends describe why the twelve animals are in this order. But the common point between all stories is the notion of a race. All twelve animals are in a race and fight their way to become the first. The story of how the rat became first is common to all legends: the ox helped the rat by accepting him on his back and the rat jumped to the finish line, therefore arriving first. The tiger, being a solitary animal, won the race third. Legends give out different stories of the other animals. For example, in one version, the snake arrived before the horse by wriggling, the rooster made an alliance with the dog and the pig but since the pig is a greedy and hungry animal, the three animals arrived last, and so on.
Each zodiac sign is associate with one of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water, known in Chinese as 五行, wǔ xing, meaning “five actions”. The five elements theory is used to describe interactions and relationships. The five elements are believed to be the fundamental elements of everything in the universe, between which interactions occur. Everybody belongs to one of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs and a 12-year cycle according to the year in which they were born. One of the five elements is associated with each of the Chinese zodiac signs and 12-year cycles. Chinese astrology asserts that personality and luck are determined by both zodiac sign (element) and 12-year cycle element, while life force (or qi) is determined by birth date and time. For the tiger, earth tiger birth years are: 1938, 1998, metal tiger birth years are: 1950, 2010, water tiger birth years are: 1962, 2022, wood tiger birth years are: 1974 and fire tiger birth years are : 1986. The symbols of yin and yang are also used in relation to zodiac signs, as well as the color of the animal. Even if a year is represented by a zodiac sign, each month is corresponded with a zodiac sign with an element and yin or yang sign. (Chinese Fortune Calendar)
According to Chinese astrology, people in their zodiac year are believed to offend Tai Sui, the God of Age, and incur his curse. Therefore, the curse will bring bad luck to the person in the zodiac year. Red is one of the luckiest colours in Chinese culture, standing for prosperity, loyalty, success, and happiness. Red can drive away bad luck and evil spirits. You can wear a red belt, red socks, red shoes, or red clothes, even a red underwear! However, there is a rule that you need to pay attention to, or the red won't ward off bad luck: the red item should be bought by a spouse, family member, or friend. If you don’t have anything red, you can also wear jade accessories. Apart from wearing something red or in jade, you can face the opposite direction of Tai Sui. For the year 2022, the position of Tai Sui is Northeast (60 °). Therefore, you need to look in the opposite direction to attract good luck by for example adjusting the furniture in the house and at work (China Highlight).
With the ongoing global pandemic, the year of the tiger has different significations. The tiger contains Yang Wood, Yang Fire, and Yang Earth. Water Tiger means the water will surround the wood (a boat on the river or a sailing ship at sea). That is a sign of exploration, adventure, challenge, risk, caution, hope, and start-up. Tiger is the beginning cycle of the wood. Water Tiger will bring a new world to people. The Yin metal of the virus will step down from the stage. The tiger is connected to the growing tree. The World will focus on economic growth (Chinese Fortune Calendar).
The start of the pandemic can also be explained according to the zodiac signs: COVID-19 was discovered at the end of 2019, which is the earth pig year. Pig is in the water group. Winter is a wonderland for viruses to survive because of lower humidity and less sunlight. 2020 is the year of the yang-metal rat. Metal is connected to the lung or wind. The yang-metal of 2020 is connected to strong wind, dry air, or spreading. The rat of 2020 is connected to cold water or cold weather. The cool humidity and dry climate help coronavirus to spread globally. Therefore, we can say that the coronavirus grows in the water environment and spreads in the metal environment. The yang-metal of 2020 is triggered in April, during the yang-metal dragon month. The cycle of the yang-metal stopped in October, the month of the yang-fire dog. The major spread-out is from April to October by the wind power of the yang-metal. November is the pig month and December is the rat month: explaining how COVID-19 evolved and mutated to SARS-CoV-2 variants during the winter period.
2021 is the year of the yin-metal cow. While yang-metal is connected to strong wind, yin-metal is connected to slow flowing air current, dirty air, or viruses. The cycle of the yin-metal stopped in August, being the fire monkey month or in September being the fire chicken month. This is because metal is afraid of fire. But, September is the month of the chicken, and the cow have an attractive relationship with the chicken, so the virus will still be present. (Chinese Fortune Calendar).
The end of the global pandemic can as well be predicted with the zodiac signs: yin-metal will reactivate in the metal rat month of December 2021, or in metal cow month of January 2022. It will end in June of 2022 during the fire horse month or in July of 2022 with the fire sheep. By the summer of 2022, the virus should be gone. (Chinese Fortune Calendar).
The year of the black water tiger 2022 promises to be a year of transformations. This year is good for making plans for the next twenty years. Those born in the year of the tiger should look for improving their prospects by a change of job or self-employment. This change can be done in the first half of the year. Others will support the tiger’ actions. Expenses will soar, and saving money might become difficult. Tiger Business people should be wary of their staff who can damage the venture. If tigers want to enjoy the year, they have to be modest and diplomatic and not get into unnecessary fights over small matters. (SunSigns).
End of the year festivals are appreciated in China by following the Gregorian and lunar calendar. As Christmas was brought by the West, this festival is becoming more present in China with a fusion of the magic of a white Christmas and Chinese characteristics. Spring Festival, being a traditional festival in China, has a common point with Christmas of reuniting families. Both festivals make the end of the year celebrations in China valued and crucial to the traditions of the Middle Kingdom.
Valeria Medeghini holds a Bachelor in Intercultural Mediation from the University of Milan, Italy. She’s been studying Chinese language and culture since high school but she’s also passionate about China-EU relations and China's politics for environmental sustainability. You can find her on Instagram as @valeriamedeghini or on LinkedIn.
Prisca Mirchandani holds a trilingual Master’s degree of Global Security and Analysis (French, English, and Chinese) from the University of Bordeaux, France. She is passionate about China-EU relations, China-France relations, and China Hong Kong’s history. You can find her on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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