Christmas is not a tradition normally associated with China. However, despite the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions between a highly commercialised Christian holiday and the world’s largest Atheist and Communist state, Christmas in China is growing to become big business. So can a Chinese Christmas be boiled down to a purely commercial phenomenon, or does the increased eagerness of Chinese consumers to celebrate Christmas indicate something deeper? Read on to get the festive skinny!
Celebrating Chinese Style
Apples wrapped in colourful paper carved with the characters for Christmas Eve – Ping’ānyè 平安夜, the unsolvable riddle of Santa – shèng dàn lǎo rén 圣诞老人 – playing a saxophone, towering Christmas trees fashioned out of yarn, shoes or handbags, malls dripping with tinsel and glitter and populated by a brigade of Santas – Christmas in China has its own unique flavour. The tradition is going from strength to strength and is particularly popular among young Chinese (aged 15-45) who tend to be more open-minded about foreign traditions than the older generation. Christmas traditions in China are often propagated by Sea Turtles who have returned home from studies abroad, and bring back with them a fondness for the tradition.
In China, Christmas is perceived as an event to be celebrated among friends rather than family, and although Chinese workers receive no official holiday, Christmas is often used as an excuse to kick-back and relax. In this sense Christmas amongst Chinese consumers is often perceived akin to how those in the West treat Valentine’s or St Patrick’s Day – as a more informal and unstructured holiday. The occasion even carries romantic connotations, with some couples evoking the mantra ‘Silent Night, First Night’ to take their relationship to the “next level”. Finally, and most importantly, Christmas is a great excuse for Chinese consumers to shop until they drop, with tempting new Christmas themed sales springing up year after year. Sales remain modest in comparison to major holidays such as Chinese New Year and Single’s Day, however they continue to rise. For example, luxury shoppers spend an average of US $221 over the Christmas period.
So far, Christmas spirit has been largely confined to China’s first and second Tier cities, and it remains to be seen whether Santa’s sleigh will reach the Mainland’s rural frontiers.
With 668 million sophisticated internet users, getting to grips with China’s complex online environment is the silver bullet for cracking the Chinese market. In recent years, Christmas has become an increasingly hot theme used by digital platforms and apps. WeChat – China’s most popular social media channel – has launched a number of creative features designed to whip up festive spirit amongst Chinese users, including the option to send WeChat Christmas cards and share ‘festive sights’ with friends. Upon typing ‘Christmas’ into the popular app, users will be rewarded with a flurry of tiny Christmas trees descending across their screen – if that’s not enough to get anyone into the festive spirit I don’t know what is.
International brands wishing to tap into China’s Christmas market via digital channels can take inspiration from brands such as Harrods. One of the UK’s oldest and most iconic department stores, Harrods has been particularly forward-thinking when it comes to targeting Chinese consumers via digital channels. The store was the first British retailer to launch an official WeChat account, and has implemented a variety of creative campaigns to target Chinese shoppers, including the store’s highly successful ‘Harrods’ Christmas Treasure Hunt’ campaign on Weibo. Harrods’ sensitivity and attention to detail when it comes to engaging Chinese consumers via digital channels has paid off, enabling the store to soak up an astonishing 20% of Chinese Mainland shoppers’ spending in the UK.
Known as the world’s factory, if Chinese consumers aren’t celebrating Christmas there is a good chance they are making it. With one single city in China, Yiwu 义乌, producing 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations, China is the largest exporter of Christmas supplies, producing Christmas goods galore for almost 200 counties around the globe. However, for the migrant workers earning between $200 and $300 a month, and notching up 12-hour-plus shifts, 6 days a week in the run up to Christmas, the festive season is not so merry.
Festive outlets linked to factories such as those in Yiwu are facing stiff competition from China’s ecommerce giants, who have become increasingly invested in pushing Christmas sales in the period which typically sees a drop-off of retail sales following Singles Day in November. In the lead up to the festive period online browsers can see the logo on Alibaba’s online shopping mall to have donned a Santa hat with campaigns such as a Christmas lottery promoted to Alibaba’s 367 million active users.
Following the troubling slump in manufacturing production and exports that followed Europe’s financial crisis, factory production in China has finally started to pick up, with exports of festive products from China’s Southern powerhouse provinces rising 30% to reach $1.13 billion by the close of 2014. For these factories, Christmas is not only a huge economic opportunity, but for the millions of workers they employ, the festive season is a lifeline for supporting themselves and their families. A great excuse to overspend on tinsel this year.
Christmas with Chinese Characteristics
So is Christmas just an excuse for Chinese consumers to enjoy a shopping blow out, or does it symbolise something deeper? Undoubtedly, Christmas in China has a strong commercial edge, however Christmas celebrations also demonstrate the extent to which China’s once closed-off culture has become increasingly open and receptive to global trends and concepts. The Chinese, instead of consuming a pure distillation of Western Christmas traditions, have adapted these norms to their tastes and cultural customs – and so Christmas (with Chinese characteristics) has metamorphosed.
To many (although not all) Chinese, it simply no longer matters whether a tradition is Western or Chinese. Christmas is even viewed by some Chinese as a benchmark of progress in this rapidly-developing country; with for many, the opportunity for Chinese of all backgrounds to enjoy increasingly mainstream international celebrations being symbolic of China’s increasingly prominent position in the world.
…and that’s something that all of the team members at China Skinny wish for our loyal readers around the world too! Merry Christmas – Shèngdàn jié kuàilè 圣诞节快乐!