A string of Valentine’s days lies ahead. Some list the Lantern Festival (Yuanxiao) among the romantic holidays. This year it will fall on February 5th. But the American style Valentine’s Day on February 14th will get much more attention. It is mainly popular among the younger generations as it is imported from the West. Usually, women give chocolate to their partners to show their love. Men are expected to return the favor later.
Some argue that the most original Chinese Valentine’s Day is on July 7th on the lunar calendar. The date is indeed of romantic significance. Folklore goes that an unfortunate couple – a cowboy and a weaver – were separated by a wicked goddess to different sides of the Milky Way. They are allowed to meet only once a year, on this day, on a bridge to be formed by magpies of goodwill.
However, when this day gradually became a holiday in ancient times in China, it was for girls to pray for endowments for domestic work, especially needlework, not for romantic love. The reason was obvious. Romantic love, although already a topic in literary works in Chinese antiquity, was almost never encouraged by the mainstream value system in ancient times. Love became a private matter in China that could stay independent of interventions from the State and family only in the 1980s.
Quite a few days on the calendar are official holidays both in China and in other parts of the world, for example, New Year’s Day and Workers’ Day on May 1st. Women’s Day on March 8th is not a public holiday in China. But most employers would allow female employees to call it a day at noon. However, those three have been on China’s official calendar for decades. Although they all originated outside the country, they are already not seen as being foreign anymore.
Then there are exotic festivals that are not public holidays but are also celebrated by some Chinese, particularly in large cities. The others are Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June. The biggest one is of course Christmas.
It is noteworthy that the imported holidays visibly celebrated in China, both official and unofficial ones, are all from the West, mainly from the United States. Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day exist in different countries on different dates. Chinese celebrating them follow the US calendar. This, together with the popularity of Halloween, is yet another sign of American pop culture’s attraction. Coming with it is the American style of expression: exaggerated, sugary, and sometimes even a bit mawkish.
Acceptance of these unofficial west-originated festivals reflects the increasing appreciation of more explicit expressions of feelings among Chinese and their pursuit of different forms of fun.
The government frowns on Christmas
Santa Claus is a well-known figure in China. A grandfatherly old man dressed in red and delivering gifts to children on a reindeer-drawn sleigh is something that could easily win the hearts of different cultures.
Tall, glittering Christmas trees stand also in front of shopping malls in big Chinese cities to remind visitors that this is part of the consumerist world, too. Trendy people are supposed to have a fancy dinner with a boyfriend or girlfriend on Christmas Eve, although this year, unfortunately, the shopping and dinner parts are mostly avoided for fear of catching Covid.
In addition, a new quirky tradition for Christmas Eve has in the past decade or so appeared among Chinese young people: they give others an apple as “Fruit for Peace.” Christmas Eve is called Peaceful Night in Chinese (Ping An Ye 平安夜). And apple is Ping Guo 苹果. Both words have a character pronounced as Ping. That might sound far-fetched and childishly kitsch, but it seems to be a not-so-bad example of how a foreign cultural tradition gets an unexpected local feature.
And of course, there are people celebrating Christmas for religious reasons: the millions of Chinese Christians. Yet, Christmas is not a public holiday in China. Quite the contrary, spasms of xenophobia and fear of Christianity’s growing influence have from time to time resulted in calls for boycotting Christmas, particularly in universities. University administrators would prevent students from Christmas-related events.
Also, although some western holidays found their way to China, celebrations of festivals of ethnic minority groups in China are nowhere to be seen in the regions overwhelmingly populated by the majority of Han people.