An Overview of Chinese Holidays
Your answers to “Do they celebrate Christmas in China?” and more
There’s a famous scene in the classic movie “A Christmas Story,” when Ralphie and his family end up at the Chinese restaurant because it’s the only place open on Christmas Day. The staff is singing “ra ra ra ra” instead of “la la la la” to the chagrin of the owner, and the duck comes out with its head intact, to the astonishment of the family.
How surprised Ralphie would be if he were to visit Beijing or Shanghai in 2018 for Christmas! With globalization, China has begun adopting more Western and American holidays, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, although perhaps only because it makes an excellent excuse to have a sale. Although most Chinese do not have a cultural attachment to the holidays, retailers see a commercial opportunity to lure shoppers into their stores.
China has a rich culture full of festivals throughout the year. We should also remember that China is huge and has 55 ethnic minority groups, all who may have their own unique cultural traditions. However, the vast majority of Chinese are Han and celebrate the following traditional holidays, although the celebrations may vary across regions.
Traditional Chinese Holidays
Family is a guiding force in Chinese culture, so it’s unsurprising that the many important holidays, such as Spring Festival, Qingming Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival, all revolve around family gatherings. Students have days off from school for these festivals so they may travel to visit family members who live in different cities.
Traditional Chinese festivals follow the lunar calendar, which is why the holidays occur at different times each year. The lunar calendar follows the moon phases so every month begins on a new moon and the full moon falls on the 15th.
Websites like China Highlights can help you keep track of the dates of traditional Chinese festivals. As an online ESL tutor, you can expect many classes to be canceled during Spring Festival and Golden Week. However, keep in mind that Chinese parents can be quite strict about learning and they may still expect classes to continue as usual during the holiday, so it is not a guarantee that you get a 15 day holiday too! Classes are generally not delayed for other festivals, but you may find a higher number of no-show students.
Chinese New Year (Jan/Feb)
Without a doubt, Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the biggest celebration in China. Most people will travel to spend time with their families during this time of year. The festival lasts 15 days, either in late January or February, and most workers get at least seven days of vacation. Schools time winter break to align with Spring Festival, so students have about one week of holiday before and after the celebration. In 2019, Chinese New Year begins on February 5th.
Each day of Spring Festival has special significance, but the main event falls on the final night, the Lantern Festival. As the name suggests, lighting lanterns is the main tradition, along with eating dumplings for good luck and watching lion dances.
Qing Ming Festival (April)
Also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, this festival is a time for honoring family ancestors. People will clean the graves of their loved ones and leave offerings so their ghosts can enjoy their favorite foods in the after-life.
Dragon Boat Festival (June)
The fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar celebrates the famous ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan. This poet wrote patriotic poetry, and some of his works are still read and studied in school. Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river and the legend goes that locals were so saddened by his death, they went out in their boats to try to find the body. When they were unable to find it, they rowed up and down the river banging drums to ward off evil spirits and throwing rice into the river to discourage fish from eating the body.
Today, people eat zongzi, a type of sticky rice dumpling, and hold dragon boat races. The boats are carved like traditional Chinese dragons, and teams compete in rowing competitions. Workers are given three days of holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival.
Mid-Autumn Festival (Sept/Oct)
Similar to North American celebrations of Thanksgiving, the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the fall harvest. It is also called Mooncake Festival because the sweet or savory treats are eaten in excess during the holidays.
National Day (Oct)
National Day on October 1st celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China and kicks off Golden Week. The first week in October is one of the busiest times of year for travel in China. Students have a full seven days off from school to spend time with family or take a trip.
Modern Chinese Holidays
In addition to the traditional festivals, China observes other holidays, but usually, people do not get days off from school or work to celebrate. While there is some history behind holidays like Children’s Day and Teacher’s Day, mostly these celebrations are for fun and to celebrate important people in their lives.
New Year’s Eve
January 1st is a public holiday for Chinese, but compared to Spring Festival, this New Year is not as exciting. Workers may have a party with their company, or if they live in Beijing, they may gather at Tiananmen Square to watch fireworks. In Shanghai, the main fireworks show happens over the Bund, the iconic waterfront in the city.
International Children’s Day is celebrated in China on June 1st. Primary school children do not have to go to school, and their parents may take the day off as well to spend a free day together. Many stores and restaurants have special discounts or toys for children, and popular kids movies will time their release date for Children’s Day. Although the holiday is meant for young children under 14 years old, adults in their 20s may still celebrate and bask in nostalgia by treating themselves to a fast food kid’s meal.
Teachers are highly regarded in many Asians countries, and many have special days to commemorate them. In China, Teachers’ Day falls on September 10th. On Teacher’s Day, students will give flowers or small gifts, and there might be an award ceremony to recognize teachers’ hard work.
One of the newest holidays is Single’s Day which falls on November 11th. The date, 11-11, looks like “bare sticks” and is like an anti-Valentine’s Day. However, since 2009, it has gained the reputation of being the largest online shopping day in the world, consecutively breaking the sales record the previous year. In 2018, online retailers made $30.8 billion in sales, despite frequent server failures caused by an overload of traffic and users.
The introduction of outside cultural festivals like Halloween or Christmas has led some to worry about Western holidays eroding Chinese traditions. Younger generations are more likely to celebrate and look forward to these types of festivities than their parents or grandparents. Students studying in the major cities are more likely to be exposed to Western holidays or the traditions that go with them, whereas students in more rural areas may be less familiar.
Chinese students are most likely to learn about celebrations from other countries in their after-school programs or at enrichment schools. Depending on the school, they may have a party in their class or do activities related to these holidays.
Although China has its own traditional holiday for romantic couples, called Double Sevenths Festival, Western Valentine’s Day is becoming more popular. Young couples will go to the movies, get a fancy dinner and give gifts to each other. Restaurants have Valentine’s Day specials, and stores offer sales to help you find the perfect gift for your special someone.
This holiday isn’t popular in China since China has other holidays that honor the dead like the Qing Ming Festival and the Spring Festival. That said, many students with foreign teachers are introduced to the holiday and some celebrate it with parties in their afterschool enrichment classes. Some foreign stores and companies like Disney also decorate their stores for the holiday.
The Chinese call this holiday “Gan’en jie” which literally translates to “thanks for grace holiday.” They may use the day to eat a Western-style meal, although turkey most likely won’t be the featured meat. They may also give gifts and send greetings to thank friends, families, teachers or bosses for their support throughout the year.
Christmas is one of the most well-known Western holidays. Although the majority of Chinese do not celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas, people will still get into the holiday spirit and send cards and gifts to friends and family. Decorations like Christmas trees, ornaments and lights can be seen around cities and in stores. Winter activities like ice skating and Christmas productions can be found as well. Santa Claus exists in China too, although he is usually accompanied by his “sisters” instead of elves!
For most students across China, summer vacation begins the middle of July and ends in August. This does not mean they have a month and a half of free time to sleep in, play video games or go shopping every day. Most students will continue to study over the summer at enrichment schools or other programs. During this time of year, there may be more opportunities for the online teacher to pick up more classes during China’s morning hours, instead of the usual evening peak times.
Have you talked to your students about their favorite holidays? As many of us begin our holiday season around the world, and Chinese begin looking forward to Spring Festival, this is a great time of year to start a conversation with your students!
I started teaching English abroad after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a degree in English Literature. Although I originally planned to teach in Cambodia for a year, I discovered I had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional and personal goals through language learning. I’ve been an Alo7 tutor since April 2017 and am currently living in South America.
I am Chinese-Japanese American, but sadly, I’m not trilingual. I grew up in a relatively “Western” household–no Tiger Moms but plenty of fried rice and a healthy dose of Asian guilt. My favorite part of English teaching is getting the opportunity to learn about my students’ daily lives, traditions and customs, so I’m very excited to be writing about Chinese culture on the Alo7 blog!