Chinese Christmas Traditions From Peace Apples to Paper Lanterns

Learn how Christmas is celebrated in China (& how it compares to the U.S.)

Updated November 25, 2023
Asian family at Christmas

In China, Christmas hasn't always been a publicly celebrated religious holiday. However, as China becomes more global, it has started to welcome a commercialized version of Christmas, known as Sheng Dan Jieh or the "Holy Birth Festival," with both religious and secular Chinese Christmas traditions. Overall, the general public in China tends to celebrate Christmas as a secular or romantic holiday with large gatherings and parties like those that Americans enjoy on New Year's Eve. 

When Is Chinese Christmas?

Christmas is celebrated in China on December 25th each year. However, unlike in America, it's typically a non-religious holiday. With only about 5% of the population Christian, according to the Pew Research Center, and the government cracking down on Christian religion and traditions, religious celebrations of the holiday are minimal.

While there might be underground church services on Christmas Eve and family gatherings on Christmas Day, Christmas is a commercialized, non-national holiday for most. Rural and smaller villages might not even celebrate the holiday at all. Usually, Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is the star of Chinese holidays.

Chinese Christmas Traditions

Because only a small percentage of China's population is Christian, Chinese society has been slow to adopt Christmas. However, Christmas decorations in stores and on streets are becoming a common site. Explore China's take on this fun, joyous holiday through looking at a few of its unique traditions.

Romantic Holiday

Happy young friends shopping for christmas

While most Americans celebrate with family on Christmas, Chinese young people celebrate with their friends or significant others. They might choose to go out to a movie, karaoke, or go shopping. Young couples make it a day for dating and celebrate by exchanging small gifts.

Giving of Gifts

Chinese grandfather giving grandson red pocket

Large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong that take part in the Christmas festivities center the celebration around children. Children in China eagerly hang muslin stockings for Santa Claus (who they call Dun Che Lao Ren, which means "Christmas Old Man") to fill at Christmas. Gift baskets filled with food and other items are always a welcome host or hostess treat when visiting during the holidays. Rather than gifts, some might also give a hong bao (red envelope) with lucky money, much like at the Spring Festival.

Preparation for Chinese New Year

Chinese boy helping mother to hang Chinese New Year decoration

While some families don't celebrate Christmas per se, they do use it as a way to prepare for the Spring Festival. They might pay respects to their ancestors by putting up portraits or put out fruits that symbolize peace and wealth, like apples and oranges.

Chinese Christmas Decorations

Decking the halls is distinctively different in Chinese culture. Immerse yourself in Chinese decorating style with these traditional adornments.

Paper Ornaments and Tree of Lights

Christmas decorations, Shanghai, China

One of the most popular Chinese Christmas traditions is to hang beautiful paper lanterns. People will hang these indoors and outdoors, and string them around a plastic Christmas tree, which is called the "Tree of Light." Families add paper chains and flowers in bright, festive colors to the Christmas tree. Malls and shopping centers make it a big affair with lights, decorations, and Santa.

Saxophone Santa and His Sisters

A Christmas Santa Claus

Santa and music tend to go hand-in-hand. From the bells in America to the sax in China, Kris Kringle loves his music. While the origins are unknown and highly theorized, a common Christmas scene in China is saxophone Santa. That saxy Santa also forgoes the elves and is followed around by his sisters. Santa's sisters are typically women dressed in red and white who follow him around in shopping malls or on the street.

Chinese Christmas Food

Chinese family enjoying their christmas dinner

Like American traditions, those who celebrate Christmas in China have a feast. But rather than turkey and stuffing, the menu would look similar to a Spring Festival fair with roast pork, jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), spring rolls, huoshao (baked roll with or without stuffing), and rice. If you'd like to plan a Chinese Christmas feast, you can also enjoy their popular native spirit, baijiu. Christmastime does offer one unique food tradition for the Chinese.

Apples for Christmas

Christmas gift boxes in China market

A fun and unique tradition in China is the giving of apples on Christmas. Much like Valentine's hearts, these apples are beautifully boxed and typically contain unique and fun sayings. Since the word for apple, pingguo, and Christmas Eve, ping'anye, sound similar in Mandarin, individuals might give an apple to their loved ones as a sign of Christmas and peace.

Fast Fact

Apples gifted on Christmas in China are known as peace apples.

The Melding of Traditions

Europe and the Americas have established many of the world's Christmas traditions, with Eastern countries following suit and blending their own customs with those already established by the West. However, China has several Christmas traditions that are uniquely their own and work as preparation for their large New Year's celebration.

Chinese Christmas Traditions From Peace Apples to Paper Lanterns