Many years ago, I experienced what was, to me, one of my most unusual Christmases. My fear of spending the holiday alone in Hangzhou, as I was single at the time, drove me to purchase a train ticket and flee to the one city where I actually had some close friends: Zhengzhou, in Central China’s Henan province. My old friend and Mandarin tutor Wang Bin connected me with some friends of his, who welcomed me into their apartment, bereft of even a single Christmas decoration, and offered me a guest room.
Even though it didn’t look a lot like Christmas in their home or on the streets, I felt determined to stir up a little holiday cheer on my own. Among my plans? Buying Christmas gifts for my Chinese friends and even host family.
Of course, this led to yet another great seasonal dilemma, one not unique to my situation in China. What Christmas gifts should I buy?
How many times had I grappled with this question in the US during past Christmases, only to face the same issue in Zhengzhou, China.
I still don’t remember what I purchased for my host family, but do recall picking up a few fuzzy scarves for my Zhengzhou friends. I have no idea if anyone liked them, but I can tell you I spent probably way more time and energy than the task deserved
Navigating Christmas in China has grown easier over the years, as I’ve celebrated many Christmases here and gained a better sense for how Chinese people view the holiday.
And now that I have family here, thanks to my marriage to a Chinese citizen, I’ve done my share of gift-giving with them. It’s not quite like doing Christmas presents back in my home country of America, but it’s also a lot easier.
If you have a similar dilemma, such as worrying about what to buy for everyone from Chinese friends or a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend to a Chinese host family, then let’s talk Christmas gifts for people in China, with an easy suggestion sure to please all ages.
Here are things to keep in mind:
#1: People in China don’t generally expect gifts for Christmas
The good news? In general, people don’t have strong expectations for gifts. The vast majority of Chinese didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas with their families, as it isn’t a traditional holiday here. You won’t encounter people making out their “gift list” to give to others, or announcing what they want in advance. (This holds true for holidays in China where people do traditionally give gifts, like Chinese New Year.)
That takes a lot of the pressure off your shoulders, as you shouldn’t feel like you have to find “the perfect gift”. People in China don’t even aim for “the perfect gift” at Chinese New Year for others, so why should you fret about it for Christmas?
#2: If you’re going to give a gift, make it quality
Here’s the key though — whatever you choose, think quality when you buy. Face matters a lot in gift-giving in China. When you present something to someone else, it also reflects on you and your relationship with them. So as much as possible, aim for the best you can afford.
#3: When in doubt, go for my No 1 gift choice in China (with a Christmas twist)
I’ve done a lot of posts on gift-giving, including The Top 6 Gifts Sure To Please Your Chinese Family published on the Huffington Post, as well as my classic post Giving Gifts to Your Chinese Family – A Modest Guide.
But whenever pressed for an easy solution, I always suggest the No 1 gift beloved by Chinese of all ages — fruit!
Chinese people think of fruit as dessert. It caps off even the most lavish of banquets, and people frequently give it to guests, friends and loved ones as a treat or gift. And when people buy fruit, they have high expectations for taste and even freshness, which means you can find delectable choices at even the most humble of fruit stores. (This last point also explains why I’ve “rediscovered” some fruits here in China — see How China (and My Chinese Husband) Helped Me Love Grapes & Other Fresh Fruit.)
Now you can buy fruit in boxes or cases, or get a fruit basket (see my article 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China for guidance on fruit baskets). You can purchase these online through the major Chinese e-commerce sites — Taobao (or its English version Baopals) and JD — which are probably one of the best ways to zero in on high-quality offerings in any season. Local supermarkets will also have fruit in boxes or cases, and sometimes fruit baskets. You can always find both at the pervasive fruit stores all across urban areas in China (proof of how much Chinese adore their fruit). If you’re living overseas and want to send a fruit basket to someone in China, try Gift Baskets Overseas (disclosure: I’m an affiliate).
However, if you want to give fruit as a Christmas gift in China, purchase apples.
Why apples? Here’s an explanation from Why Christmas:
People give apples on Christmas Eve because in Chinese Christmas Eve is called “Ping’an Ye” (平安夜), meaning peaceful or quiet evening, which has been translated from the carol ‘Silent Night’. The word for apple in Mandarin is “píngguǒ” (苹果) which sounds like the word for peace.
Giving apples on Christmas Eve has emerged as a new kind of tradition here in China. Even I’ve received my share. And Chinese generally people love good apples, tradition or no, making them a wonderful present.
I highly recommend giving Xinjiang Aksu sweetheart apples (阿克苏冰糖心苹果) for their sugary goodness sure to delight during the holidays. China also has a variety of Fuji apples (富士苹果) that make for delicious gifts too.
Optionally, stores now sell special Christmas Eve apples decorated with Chinese characters just for the occasion, which obviously cost more.
If you opt for a fruit basket, that’s fine too. Look for one that includes apples!
While apples and other fruit make for an easy Christmas gift solution, they aren’t the only possibilities.
For more ideas, take a look at my article The Top 6 Gifts Sure To Please Your Chinese Family published on the Huffington Post, as well as my classic post Giving Gifts to Your Chinese Family – A Modest Guide. And yes, for gift baskets, see my article 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.
What do you think is the easiest kind of Christmas gift to give to Chinese loved ones, family or friends here in China?