Read more about Christmas
What Do They Call Christmas in China?: Christmas celebrations from across the world
'Do they know its Christmas?'
While we may imagine Christmas to be the most important and universally celebrated festival in the world, the vast majority of people on the planet either do not celebrate Christmas or allocate it a smaller place amongst their holiday traditions.
In this article, we’ll go over how China, India and Nigeria have adopted Christmas into their holiday celebrations and the importance of these celebrations alongside, or in opposition to, their native holiday celebrations.
It’s easy to think that with China’s distance from the West both in terms of geography and politics, Christmas celebrations would struggle to take root. That is true to an extent, but Christmas has a place in China that is relatively unknown.
The Mandarin name for Christmas is “shèng dàn jié”, a phrase that roughly means “the holiday celebrating the birth of a saint”. In simplified Chinese, “shèng” or “saint” is substituted for “ye” referring to “Jesus”. That language change reflects a changing attitude to Christmas in China, especially by the younger generation.
During December, many urban areas in China are decorated with Christmas trees, lights and all the other festive embellishments we are all too familiar with. Along with this, many people make paper lanterns or launch fireworks into the night sky as a celebration of Christmas.
So, how has Christmas managed to integrate itself so deeply into Chinese culture? Part of it may be due to China’s large Christian population of 44 million people. Or it may simply be evidence of a great cultural exchange between China and the West that goes somewhat unrecognized. In any case, Christmas plays a small, but not insignificant part in China’s winter festivities.
The festival does face great competition with the Chinese Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year as it’s also known) for the most significant celebration of the year. The fact that it falls so close to China’s traditional winter celebrations the Dongzhi Festival (celebrated on the 21st or 23rd of December) poses a huge barrier to its greater adoption in the country.
Still, the fact that it is celebrated at all is a testament to the power of the Christmas spirit.
Like in China, Christmas isn’t considered a major festival in India. But unlike China, the diversity of India means that their Christmas celebrations are a lot less uniform.
India does have a smaller number of Christians than China with 26 million, but that is still a significant amount. Many of these Christians are concentrated in the Western province of Goa, where Christmas celebrations are widespread. Some of the more recognisable are Christmas trees and fruit cakes. Christians in Goa will also often have chicken or even turkey on Christmas Eve before attending Midnight Mass. Nativity scenes are also a common sight.
In some parts of India, Christmas carols are sung and parents promise their children that “Christmas Baba” (or whatever alternative name for “Father Christmas” they use) will deliver presents overnight.
But there are a few traditions we’re less familiar with. Some Christians in India will burn oil lamps on their roofs to symbolise Jesus as the light coming into a dark world. And beautiful paper lamps and other decorations are a big source of pride for those celebrating Christmas.
Despite not being celebrated by most of India’s population, Christmas still holds some degree of importance and is even a public holiday across the country. This is partly a legacy of British colonialism and partly of Western cultural exchange with India, but also has its roots in Portugal’s trade with India as far back as the 16th century.
In all, Christmas is a well-celebrated holiday in India, even by those who don’t share its religious origins.
Finally, we come to a country where, despite the lack of snow, the spirit of Christmas is felt as strongly as anywhere else in the world. Just under half of Nigeria’s population is Christian, and around the holiday season, religious observances are treated with the utmost importance.
Christmas carols can be heard ringing out from inside the Christian churches and on Christmas morning many Nigerians make their way to church to give thanks to God and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
But it’s not all just religious observances, as the familiar activities of gift-giving, feasting, and partying are also a huge part of the holiday season. Homes and streets are decked out in colourful decorations and you’ll find artificial Christmas trees bedecked with ornaments. Christmas is also a time of giving to the more unfortunate in society. Charity is an incredibly important part of Nigerian Christmas traditions.
Of all the countries we’ve covered, Nigeria likely has the most similar traditions to the United Kingdom, which is partly due to Britain’s colonial overlordship of the country. But there is also an essence of peaceful cultural exchange there that shouldn’t be ignored either.
The name for Christmas in Nigeria changes depending on which of the many languages it is being spoken in. Of course, English is a common language to most people, but in the most common native language, Hausa, you’ll hear people saying “barka dà Kirsìmatì”.
But no matter what language you speak, or where you live in the world, Christmas is a time for recognising our common humanity as much as our diverse cultural differences. So we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.