Christmas celebrations in Shanghai take many forms. Some people play mahjong and sing karaoke to celebrate, young couples plan dates as Santa is considered romantic, many go shopping to take advantage of discounts while others go to various churches around the city for an authentic experience.
The religious meaning of Christmas is often lost on locals, who have embraced the commercial aspect of December 25. Despite this, many are curious about Christmas and have turned it into an “unofficial holiday.”
Last Christmas Eve, Daisy Ding, a non-Christian, went to a church to see what the holiday is all about. It seems as though she wasn’t impressed. She remembers falling asleep while trying to sing along with the choir.
On the same day, Deng Kajia, who is Christian, recalls being in a hurry. She says she had to arrive at church before 5pm, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to get a seat since many non-believers turn up for the occasion.
“It’s a Shanghai-style Christmas,” wrote Cheng Naishan in one of her columns. The late writer gained fame for documenting Shanghai’s history, including the ways locals celebrate Christmas.
Gao Jun, executive dean at the Center for Cultural Relics and Cultural Heritage Studies of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, says the city’s history has contributed to the distinctive ways in which Christmas is celebrated.
He says the first Christmas party in the city was held by the British Lockhart family near Yaojialong (today’s Fuxing Rd E.) in 1843, the year Shanghai became an international port.
William Lockhart, who founded Renji Hospital, the first Western hospital in Shanghai, and his wife invited the wife of Gong Mujiu, who held a position equivalent to Shanghai mayor at the time, to the party. She refused the invitation and, Gao says, for the next 10 years Christmas in the city was celebrated only by foreigners.
Holy Trinity Cathedral on Jiujiang Road and Union Church on South Suzhou Road were built around this time, Gao adds.
From 1855 onward, some wealthy Chinese started moving into the foreign concession. Gao says they were impressed by what they saw and started following a Western lifestyle. Celebrating Christmas became fashionable among this group and the trend soon captivated the whole city.
“Besides the Chinese who were enrolled in missionary schools, most Chinese didn’t go to church, but they celebrated in their own way,” Gao says.
Chen Jinjun, now in her 80s, says she went to a missionary school and remembers that Christmas was the happiest time of the year.
“We had two days off,” Chen recalls. “On the 24th we had a Christmas dinner with turkey. All students were given a small gift bag filled with pastries, candies, chocolate and a small toy.
“On Christmas Day, the headmaster took us to church to sing hymns,” she adds.
Writer Cheng has always observed that class made a difference in how Chinese have celebrated Christmas.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the wealthy and well-educated often held Christmas parties at home and invitations would be sent out a week in advance.
“Women who did not receive any invitations from a gentlemen would feel ashamed,” Cheng once wrote. “They wouldn’t dare pick up the phone on Christmas Eve because then people would know they had stayed home.”
Park Hotel was popular due to its authentic Christmas menu, and dancing at the Paramount — once Asia’s biggest nightclub and dance hall — was considered fashionable.
The working class often went shopping on Christmas Day, when various department stores offered discounts. An old Christmas flyer shows Santa placing boxes of Chesterfield cigarettes under a Christmas tree.
Other Chinese would have a Christmas dinner at home, but Chinese dishes like duck braised with soy sauce instead of turkey were served instead of Western favorites.
Christmas in the city today is becoming more commercial. Expensive Christmas dinners are offered by hotels and restaurants, shopping malls extend hours and offer sales and some companies launch limited-edition items.
Ding says she likes to go to Xintiandi around December 25 as it has a Christmas feel. The area is always nicely decorated with a beautiful Christmas tree, log cabin, candy shop, gingerbread house and merry-go-round. Of course, people dropping by can purchase Christmas accessories, handicrafts, sparkling wine and even eggnog.
For Deng, though, none of this is as important as going to church and celebrating the birth of Jesus.
“Some church choirs will perform every night from December 23 to 25,” she says. “Each member of the choir lights and holds a candle as they sing songs such as ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Joy to the World’.”
Deng says Shanghai Community Church on Hengshan Road is the most popular on Christmas Eve while Youag John Allen Memorial Church on Kunshan Road is known for its beautiful music.
For the non-religious, Christmas has become known as a time for romance. Many young locals have decided Christmas is not for family gatherings but a time to be with friends or that special someone.
Priscilla Wu, a lifestyle editor, says if one posts on social media something along the lines of “I will celebrate Christmas alone,” then they are basically announcing they are single.
Meanwhile, Ding says restaurants and hotels often decorate tables with a candle and garland while offering live music in the lead up to Christmas, thus many locals associate the holiday with romance.