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Chinese holidays and celebrations

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China has seven state-sanctioned holidays every year, which are determined using both the western Gregorian and Chinese lunar calendars. If consulting a Western calendar, the dates for many Chinese holidays change every year, so it pays to learn holiday schedules ahead of time and avoid the holiday rush.

The Chinese government has implemented the strange concept of transferred holidays, meaning that weekends are brought forward or deferred to transform a three-day holiday into a week-long festival, stimulating domestic travel and consumption. This, however, means that workers are required to work a weekend day (or two) before (and/or after) a string of rest days, resulting in seven- or eight-day work weeks. Since it changes every year, some years can be much worse in terms of working extra days around holidays, depending on where the weekends fall around each holiday.

However, some western companies and corporations with branches in Shanghai will continue to follow western holiday schedules to minimise downtime and inconvenience.

Here is a list of state-sanctioned holidays for 2015, including transferred workdays:

Holiday Days off Days on
New Year (western)
元旦 - yuándàn
Jan 1-3
(Thu-Sat)
Jan 4

(Sun)

Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)
春节 - chūnjié
Feb 18-24
(Wed-Tue)
Feb 15 (Sun),
Feb 28 (Sat)
Tomb Sweeping Day
清明节 - qīngmíngjié
Apr 4-6
(Sat-Mon)
none
International Workers' Day
劳动节 - láodòngjié
May 1-3
(Fri-Sun)
none
Dragonboat Festival
端午节 - duānwǔjié
Jun 20-22
(Sat-Mon)
none
Mid-Autumn Festival
中秋节 - zhōngqiūjié
Sep 26-27
(Sat-Sun)
none
National Day
国庆节 - guóqìngjié
Oct 1-7
(Thu-Wed)
Oct 10 (Sat)

Besides traditional Chinese holidays, a number of western and Hallmark holidays have been creeping into local marketing campaigns (e.g. Valentine's Day); all of these are optional, although marketing pressure to conform increases every year.

New Year

Chinese celebrate the western New Year (元旦 - yuándàn) with a two day holiday.

Spring Festival / Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year, Shanghai style! 新年快乐04:45

Happy Chinese New Year, Shanghai style! 新年快乐

VPN Fireworks in the streets on Chinese New Year (video credit to kinggimped)

The exact timing of the week-long Spring Festival (春节 - chūnjié) - commonly referred to as "Chinese New Year" - differs every year according to the lunar calendar, and brings with it a huge human migration as the vast majority of Chinese people head back to their hometowns to spend the festival with their families. The annual Chinese New Year migration is the largest human mass exodus in the world, and is a colossal strain on China's mass transportation systems. Interestingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, adult nappy sales soar before the season so people can relieve themselves in relative comfort during the long train journey home.

Business during the surrounding few weeks grinds to a halt as workers stagger their leave, getting a head-start on train and plane tickets. Travel within China during Spring Festival is not advised.

Chinese New Year is the first of 3 Golden Week celebrations in China, and for the Chinese is generally a family affair, as well as an opportunity to take a well-earned rest and eat plenty of food. Many migrant workers in Shanghai set aside a portion of their salary all year to save up for the trip home.

Spring Festival is also a time for giving gifts: traditionally, red envelopes (红包 - hóngbāo) containing money are given by older family members to children. It is also traditional to bring friends and relatives small gifts of fruit, cakes, biscuits, chocolates, and other similar items. Consult our guide to gifts for more information.

Foreigners are often caught off-guard by the sudden lack of people around the city, lack of available amenities as stores, restaurants and bars shut down over the holiday, and the proliferation of fireworks and firecrackers. Fireworks are particularly evident on the evening of New Years Eve, as well as the 5th day (which is dedicated to the god of wealth and prosperity) and the 15th day (the final day of the festival).

The final day of the Spring Festival is also known as the Lantern Festival (元宵节 - yuánxiāojié), which traditionally rounds off the new year celebrations. Children traditionally go out in the evening, lighting and carrying paper lanterns and solving riddles.

Tomb-Sweeping Festival

Tomb-Sweeping Festival (清明节 - qīngmíngjié) - sometimes translated literally as "Clear Bright Festival" - was recently upgraded to state-sanctioned holiday status, and is dedicated to paying respect to ancestors at their graves or burial sites. You may notice paper and other effigies being burned in tribute to ancestors. It's also traditional for people to fly kites of all shapes and colours during the festival.

The burning of paper replicas of desirable items (generally money, but also cars and houses) is a key part of Tomb-Sweeping Festival. A trend in recent years is for families to buy paper iPad replicas and burn them at the grave, ensuring that even in death their brand-conscious ancestors are privy to the latest in consumer electronics.

Since this festival is primarily concerned with death - something of a taboo subject in Chinese culture - it is generally a solemn and private affair. Unlike other holidays, wishing somebody a happy festival (e.g. 清明节快乐 - qīngmíngjié kuàilè) is not a good idea. It's generally safest for foreigners not to mark the holiday by giving gifts or greetings of any kind - just enjoy the time off work!

Labour Day / International Workers' Day

Labour Day, or International Workers' Day (劳动节 - láodòngjié), is the second of China's three Golden Week celebrations (the other two being Spring Festival and National Day), but was recently downgraded to only three days. It's a good time of year to travel if you can swing some days off before and after to avoid the never-ending crowds of tourists.

Introduced by Chairman Mao in the 20th century, Labour Day holds no traditional cultural importance.

Dragonboat Festival

Dragonboat Festival (端午节 - duānwǔjié) - also known as "Double Fifth" as it takes place on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month - is something of a wasted opportunity in Shanghai, as there is not yet any majestic dragonboat race sanctioned to take place on the Huangpu River.

During Dragonboat Festival you will often see people preparing and eating small triangles of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves with several different fillings. These are 粽子 - zòngzi, and you can find out more information about them and some of the more famous 粽子 vendors in this blog post by /u/flaminghead.

Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节 - zhōngqiūjié) is especially poignant for foreigners living in Shanghai, as it's the festival to celebrate those roaming distant lands away from home. As its name suggests, the festival takes place right in the middle of autumn in the lunar calendar.

The size of the full moon appears larger in the sky as the moon's proximity to earth is at its closest at this time of year. A yellow or mandarin tint is also often visible.

Mid-Autumn Festival is traditionally one for families to get together and eat mooncakes (月饼 - yuèbǐng). For this reason, a traditional greeting for this festival is 阖家团圆 - hé jiā tuán yuán, which literally means "whole family united, round and full". However, in modern China families are often spread out and the main opportunity for a reunion takes place during Spring Festival. Generally speaking, expect to see plenty of lanterns burning brightly during Mid-Autumn Festival, and vast quantities of mooncakes being eaten (or at least offered).

Due to the fact that the recipe hasn't changed in thousands of years but human palates have, traditionally-prepared mooncakes (usually made with red bean or lotus seed paste and duck eggs) are something of a polarising affair - some can't get enough of the greasy, salty, chewy moon-shaped snacks, but others find them absolutely revolting. However, there are other flavours of mooncakes to satisfy everybody, including pineapple, durian, taro paste, yoghurt, jelly, green tea, and even ice cream or chocolate.

National Day

National Day, (国庆节 - guóqìngjié) is China's immovable celebration of national pride. It takes place every year on 1st October, and is the last of China's 3 Golden Week celebrations. Expect to see plenty of fireworks, concerts, parades, large crowds, public places decorated in a sea of red banners, and plenty of flags all over the city.

Travel is inadvisable during the National Day holiday, unless you're going overseas. Lots of stores hold once-yearly rock-bottom sales during the holiday week.

Other celebrations

Chinese Weddings

Halloween in Shanghai

Christmas in Shanghai

'Bare-branch Day'

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