Spending time away from home can be a daunting experience for many expats. For example, the absence of cosy family get-togethers and warm dinners during Christmas can leave expats out in the cold, lost and not knowing what to do. But do not fear! China has a lot to offer during the festive season and if you’re staying for an even longer period, you’ll be able to experience more of China’s many traditional holidays and festivals. Christmas is not a public holiday in China but many young people often celebrate it. In Shanghai for example, the streets, decorated with glittering lights and Christmas music playing everywhere.
Spring Festival - 春节 (January / February)
To make the most out of the Spring Festival, Gui Xiang, a Shanghainese local, recommends spending time with a Chinese family. “It’s a good way to see what actually happens because many of the traditions take place inside. For example, we give out red envelopes to the young people and also make Jiǎozi (Dumplings) and Niángāo (Sticky cake) at home.” Jenny, a student from the UK who regularly makes trips to China to see her family notes the differences between the two cultures. “During Christmas we would spend time with our family whilst during the New Year we would go out with our friends, it’s the complete opposite here but I like the difference.”
The Dragon Boat Festival - 端午节 (June)
Another lively festival is the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) which is held in June and is a traditional holiday that commemorates Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese Scholar and occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Lunar Calendar. The story goes that Qu Yuan commits suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River and it was said that the locals threw rice offerings in the river to prevent the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body and paddled boats out to retrieve his body. Zòngzi (glutinous rice stuffed with fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves) symbolises the rice offerings to Qu and is a popular food eaten during this period. You’ll often see them in different shapes and sizes with a variety of fillings to choose from ranging from pork which seems to be a favourite of the locals to a sweeter red bean filling. Although not as big as it used to be, the dragon boat race which symbolises the paddling of the boats to retrieve Qu Yuan’s body, usually takes place on the Huangpu River. To the locals, the dragon boat race is not all about vying for titles but about entering the spirit of the festival so you’ll definitely see people shouting and cheering on the dragon boat crews.
Mid-autumn festival - 中秋节 (September / October)
Another big festival and holiday here is the Mid-Autumn Festival which dates back to more than 2000 years ago and is one of the most important festivals to Chinese people. It takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month every year. According to the lunar calendar, this day is exactly in the middle of autumn and is hence called the Mid-Autumn Festival. However, many locals simply prefer to call it “15th of the eighth month” instead. People celebrate this festival because it is the time when the moon is at its fullest in the whole year and this symbolizes family reunion. During this time family members would get together, eat moon cakes and gaze at the glorious full moon. Moon cakes are round pastries that are shaped like the moon and can have a variety of fillings from the more traditional salted egg yolk and red bean paste fillings to the more unusual Duran, cream cheese fillings. But don’t be scared, there is bound to be something for everyone! In places like Shanghai, the signature hairy crabs (大闸蟹) will also be in season during the Mid-Autumn Festival and is probably the most sought after delicacy by the Chinese during this period. Hairy crabs are usually served steamed and there are usually heavy promotions going on. So remember to give your fingers some exercise this Mid-Autumn term by cracking, prying and picking out the rubbery flesh from the crabs.
China has lots to offer whatever the season. The streets in big cities such as Shanghai light up at Christmas and Christmas music can be heard all through the Shopping malls. During New Years Eve, 3D light shows are held where thousands will gather. In February, fireworks and firecrackers will create a never ending lively atmosphere during the Spring Festival. Delicious Zòngzi awaits you in June at the Dragon Boat Festival. You can eat as many moon cakes as you want during the Mid Autumn Festival in October.
With so much fun waiting for you all year round, spending time in China away from home isn’t so bad after all, is it now?