Christmas vs Chinese New Year

I love Christmas as a religious and cultural event. To be honest, I even prefer it to the Chinese New Year.

1) Greetings: Peace vs Money

At Christmas time, the greetings are generally ‘Merry Christmas’ or a ‘Happy New Year.’ People also wish you joy, peace and harmony. However, one of the most common greetings for the Chinese New Year is 恭喜发财 - ‘gōngxǐ fācái’ (or in Cantonese, Gong Hei Fat Choi). It means ‘Wishing you Wealth’. Many more Chinese New Year expressions are related to ‘money and prosperity’. Many Chinese New Year songs are all about ‘gōngxǐ fācái’, and ‘the god of wealth has arrived’. Money is important and the concept of wealth is so ingrained in the Chinese psyche.

2) Atmosphere: Calmness vs Bustling with noise and excitement

I’ve experienced Christmas as a calm and peaceful festival. However, the Chinese New Year is always bustling with noise and excitement, in or outside of your house. There is an expression in Chinese called 热闹 rènào, which is impossible to translate into English, as there is no such concept in the English language. 热闹 rènào can be vaguely translated as ‘bustling with joy, noise and excitement; heat and boisterous’. Deborah Fallows, in her fabulous book, Dreaming in Chinese, described 热闹 rènào is ‘the default mode of Chinese social life’. The Chinese way of life is not about your personal space, it’s all about ‘togetherness’. If I try to use one word to summarise my Chinese New Year experiences, the word would be ‘noise’.

Harvard Linguist Deborah Fallows with her insights into Chinese culture

3) Gifts: Nicely wrapped presents vs Money in a red packet

Giving children money in a red packet

Giving children money in a red packet

At Christmas time, people get nicely wrapped presents. Chinese get money in a red packet called 红包 hóngbāo in the New Year.  As a child, I received so many of them, but once the relatives have left, many of my 红包 hóngbāo would be safely passed on to my mother, for her to use for other people’s kids. It means that I didn’t actually get to keep the money myself. I did feel sad. Receiving 红包 hóngbāo was just a ritual, as the money would end up with your mum who ‘helps look after your money.’ As a child, I understood the New Year time was very stressful for mum, so we were filial enough to pass our ‘earnings’ from the hóngbāo to mum.

There’s a great deal of stress for the Chinese parents during the new year, as they have to prepare so many 红包 hóngbāo to the kids of other people, out of courtesy and social pressure. My mum has so many kids, and there’re a lot of logical thinkings about how much to put in each 红包 hóngbāo to her own kids and to other people’s kids.

My mum is kind and generous, I remembered some acquaintances would turn up with their children to greet us, and mum was obliged to give the kids some money in 红包 hóngbāo.

However, receiving Christmas gifts is different. Kids are more likely to keep the gifts than mum recycling them. The joy of opening a big box of gift is immense. I enjoy it so much as an adult myself.

4) Leisure: TV vs Gambling

At Christmas time, family watch TV, get drunk, go online shopping, and some families keep some family tradition alive such as doing a jigsaw puzzle or playing board games together. However, in the Chinese New Year, you may be surprised to know that gambling plays a big part in many families and the communities. It’s not uncommon for the police to raid families who gather for ‘a bit of fun’ in gambling too. (You may also be able to bribe the police.) There’s even an expression which justifies gambling during the Chinese New Year as ‘a little bit of gambling soothes your mind.’  (小赌怡情). People would also gamble in the New Year to try out their luck for the whole year(手气).  Above all, many people feel that a bit of controlled gambling is harmless, especially during the New Year, as you’re being with your family and everybody is relaxed, having fun, a bit of chatting and being together.

I come across this interesting blog post by sixthseal about gambling during the Chinese New Year. According to the blogger, “Yup, it’s a tradition along with fireworks and heavy drinking – the third component of celebrations would be gambling! ”

Gambling  during Chinese New Year by

Gambling during Chinese New Year by

Chinese New Year: family time…for gambling (by

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29 thoughts on “Christmas vs Chinese New Year

  1. Janet Williams Post author

    I didn’t have many presents as a child, as birthday was not a big thing either. Now, in the west, I get to buy presents, and receive presents, so it’s quite a wonderful feeing to have.

    The culture of buying presents involves the buyer giving a lot of thoughts, and I’ve grown to love this ritual, though lots of people still buy rubbish presents or ready gift-wrapped presents from shops. However, giving money (and later comparing how much you’ve given and how much your child receives) has no such joy.

  2. rachel bar

    Hi Janet, an interesting post about your culture, I’ve learned from it. On the other hand, here in California Christmas is also about money, about hustle and bustle and when you drive to the mall to shop for gifts, it seems like cars have become a WMD! Kids are inundated with more gifts that they can play with and parents are exhausted. Maybe the Chinese, being an older culture are simply less pretentious?

  3. Janet Williams Post author

    Dear Rachel,

    I’m pleased this post is inspiring to you. I agree — these days, kids (and even adults) are inundated with gifts, especially luxurious gifts. Similarly, a lot of Chinese kids receive far too much money over the Chinese New Year. The pre-festival period is always crazy in any culture, but I feel that comparatively, Christmas (on the Christmas day at least, not the sales after Christmas) is still a rather quieter, calmer event, and it centres on family.

    Another advantage of giving present is that you get to experience the unexpected niceties in life. I feel that somehow giving money is practical, yet for a small child, getting money is less exciting than getting a cute fluffy toy.

    As there’re a lot of obligations in the Chinese New Year to young people. These days, it’s fashionable for people to escape the New Year — annual escape. By going away, people can avoid giving out money or greeting relatives. Some people simply can’t cope with the stress of tradition and pressure.

  4. Poh Huai Bin

    Hello Janet! 🙂

    It depends a lot on the family in question – I spent that CNY in Ipoh, with a friend’s family (leave got messed up at work so I couldn’t go back to my hometown which is over the sea in Sarawak).

    In my hometown, our family gambles among cousins, for small amounts of money. As the oldest son of the oldest son (and being the default banker now that my uncle is old) I end up paying out more to my (younger) cousins, some of which are in school.

    It’s all in good fun, and we usually play blackjack and I’ll come up with random rules like “Next person to get 21 gets RM 50 free from the banker (me)” so my cousins don’t actually lose money.

    It’s a tradition in our family where my uncle always did the same, so we’ll end up with more money than when we started. 🙂

    I usually prepare 1-2k to give out during the CNY Eve family gathering to ensure no one loses (they are all younger than me) and everyone goes back happy.

    However, some families do gamble big time and spend sleepless nights. I don’t believe in that.

    I’m more of a fireworks sort of person. Cheers, it was good reading your post. 🙂

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Huai Bin,

      Thank you for your clarification and allowing me to use your blog post as an example on Chinese gambling. I can see that in your family, gambling during the New Year is just a form of entertainment, to gel your family together, and the younger ones don’t actually lose money. What a relief!

      However, I’ve seen many families really gambling seriously, at home or in big casinos and families fall out or suffer great loses due to heavy gambling.

      In our family, there were mahjong, poker cards and even an occasional appearance of a horse racing machine.

      When I was little, each hongbao contained about 4 dollars. I wonder what the ‘market rate’ is these days?

      Thank you for your feedback again. I really appreciate it.

  5. ShimonZ

    Very interesting, Janet, to read your comparison of the celebration of holidays in China and the UK. Having visited many foreign countries, I often felt that it was very difficult to understand the many subtleties about the way people celebrated. I know that in my own country, there are many different traditions, and different values that are reflected in separate sub-cultures found in our society. Some I find charming, and others are difficult for me to enjoy. I imagine that in each society, we have to find people who are closer to our values and tastes, in order to feel really at home.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Shimon,

      It’s absolutely true that we need to find the right people/group that are close to our values and tastes in life — like birds of a feather flock together. In a society, different people would celebrate the same festival in their own fashion. However, the Chinese way that I mentioned (gambling in particular) was based on my own family experience, what I saw in my community, among friends of different social backgrounds. It makes me wonder if gambling is more a deeper cultural issue than a passing activity for a couple of days during the festive season.

      I could never understand why gambling is considered an acceptable entertainment for families (children are encouraged to take part too) during the most important festive season, yet there’re so many things I don’t understand, such as why people like to play computer games.

      (p/s: I’m of Chinese origin, but I grew up in Malaysia.)

  6. Helen Williams

    Hi Janet,

    I love Christmas. I love the feeling of excitement as it approaches, the Christmas markets opening and the first snowfall here in Munich. I have so much fun choosing gifts and am deeply touched by the presents that people give me and my children. I enjoy eating too much food and drinking champagne early in the morning. It’s wonderful to go to the church crib service on Christmas Eve and see the boys learning that Christmas is about more than just presents. But most of all, I love having one day a year that is spent with my whole family, doing the same things we do every year…teasing Ben about what time it is as he counts down to Doctor Who, complimenting Mum on her cooking, admiring your beautiful wrapping and cards, listening to Dad snoring in front of the television. For me, it truly is a magical time of year.

    I experienced a small slice of Chinese New Year when I was in Singapore. It was very beautiful and very exciting, and a wonderful party. But as an outsider looking in, I agree that it lacked the peace that I so love about our family Christmas.

    I’m already counting down to next year!

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Helen,

      Thank you for your lovely comment.

      I think ‘magical’ is the best word to summarise Christmas. I totally agree with you. I also find the routines of Christmas very fascinating, even after more than 10 years with our family. Why do people do the same things (and grumble a little about the chores and stress) each year? Again, it’s probably the same routines that bind family together. It’s wonderful. The strange thing is, I’ve started to become a bit OCD about Christmas. I think I must have assimilated quite well into this culture.

      The most cherished part for ms is the magnificent gift giving experience. It’s almost like a holy ceremony. My friend Tilly recently wrote in her blog post that I could 100% relate to:

      Tilly wrote in That Was Weird that:

      “Usually, it takes us about two hours to unwrap all the presents. We take turns, decipher the clues we have written for each other, and thank the giver. That didn’t change. We once spent Christmas with a family who dived in to the presents in a frenzy, opening everything at once. It took eight people fifteen minutes, tops. It might be fun but there was no laughter at bad guesses and daft clues, no gratitude from the receiver for the effort made by the giver. We like to savour our gift-gifting.”

      I also value the fact that there is a special day when most shops are closed in this country. It allows people to slow down and enjoy a day with their family, even for just a day, to enjoy total calmness and peace.

  7. keiththegreen

    You mention gambling as part of the Chinese New Years, and I just read this morning that the December 15 – January 7th period is one of the busiest periods for Las Yegas every year. Also here in Canada many charities have Christmas Lotteries that cost $50 or $100 per ticket. I think that in spite of nationality, culture or religion, we are all very similar in our actions.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Keiththegreen,

      Gambling in casinos is popular in the west. However, I’m pretty sure that most gamblers there are of Chinese origin. Even in the UK, a lot of gamblers who frequent casinos are Chinese.

      Lotteries — thank you for reminding me, yes, lotteries are popular in many societies. I was given one lottery ticket from my colleague this year too.

      I’m aware that gambling is a habit for many people across different cultures, but I’m quite keen to find out if the Chinese gamble more than other cultures, as gambling is almost actively promoted by many within the Chinese families, especially during the Chinese New Year. What message is this we send to kids?

  8. 阿思

    Em…my family is different. My mum never allow any poker cards in the house. She has never let us gamble in any events start from early age. So my Chinese New Year is a very cheerful and family get together type of big day for us.

    When we was small, we never care about how much money was in our red envelopes. Chinese New Year is a fun day which we can play lots and lots of fireworks together with my family. During CNY, there is plenty of CNY cookies to eat. We pray our ancestors.

    When we got older, Chinese New Year is the reunion day for all of us. We will sit together and eat steamboat. After dinner, we sat outside in the garden and everyone share some funny story and we all laugh and laugh. We sit infront of TV and watching CNY programmes together.

    No presents but with lots of laughter. This is my family Chinese New Year. I still prefer Chinese New Year than Christmas. For me, Christmas is just for kids….

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you so much for your feedback, 阿思.

      Thank you for sharing the Chinese New Year tradition in your family. It is such a happy family with so much laughter. I also remember a lot of good food, cookies, sweets. We also share the ‘steamboat’ (Hot Pot) and it was so enjoyable.

      You’ve shown that there’re many ways to celebrate the Chinese New Year and each family has its own unique way of celebration.

      I also enjoy Christmas — I think Christmas is not just for children. I truly enjoy it as an adult, the joy of spending time with family and having great conversations.

      All the best to you in the New Year. Aren’t we lucky that the Chinese New Year is just around the corner? Another round of celebration.

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  16. Hari Qhuang

    Many of my friends are Christians (of Chinese descent). They “have to” celebrate both Christmas and CNY, which they keep saying are equally expensive.
    I do wonder if they have been seeing these events more as a burden than something joyous (honesty, I do not have the gut to ask such a sensitive question. I’d rather ask if they had plastic surgeries!).

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Plastic surgeries! You’re making me laugh, Hari.

      It is a great burden to celebrate both lavish festivals. However, if people are sensible, they can still enjoy fun celebrating both, making the festivals more meaningful than more expensive. The problem is people are bound by certain traditions and spending habits at these festivals, making life more stressful.

      1. Hari Qhuang

        You forget one important factor.
        These events are the occasions for some people to show off their new things to neighbors, relatives and friends. It certainly makes celebrating the holidays much more expensive.
        I’m so sick of it that I made the resolution to never buy new clothes for CNY. I have successfully done it for six years now.
        It may sound weird but I’m actually feeling happier.

      2. Janet Williams Post author

        You are right, Hari (are you always right?).

        Showing off — yes, I know that feeling! People are so pressurised to buy certain food and decoration, also plants…..and before the Chinese New Year, things are expensive, even a hair-cut was double the price — I remember it and never thought it was fair. But here in the UK, the price stays the same. Food price stays relatively the same. However, gifts and other accessories and luxuries are expensive; ‘themes’ for each year’s decorations are also different.

        It is amazing how modern people make life so difficult for themselves.

      3. Hari Qhuang

        I know! We do make our lives more complicated. Don’t we?

        My history teacher once said that the more advanced a civilization was, the more political its lifestyle was going to be.

        I think he is right. Chinese people of old time did not worry about what to serve to their guests on CNY. They simply wanted everybody in the family to be home and safe, welcoming the spring together.

        My teacher also said that when clothing became more fashion than function, the complication began! 😀

        This is so fun! Your posts always lead to discussions! How do you do it? 😀

      4. Janet Williams Post author

        Hi Hari,

        Chinese New Year – for most families, getting together is the main part, and enjoying a lovely home cooked meal. We used to be very busy preparing the New Year meal. It was more meaningful than eating out. But now, celebration has changed as expectations are also high.

        About how my posts generating discussions, Lorelle has got brilliant points in this Blog Exercise: I Don’t Have Any Comments. Quality is always more important. She talked about interactivity, social intercourse, and having a dialog with our readers.

        Your blog is beautiful — you have attracted many interesting readers and I have learnt so much from your cultural notes, which you always write in a cheerful way. You have a funny way of sharing your tales and I feel very welcoming.

        Just follow Lorelle and listen to her as she is almost always right 🙂

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