The Cultural Differences between Chinese and Western
Traditional Festivals as Reflected in
Spring Festival and Christmas
As was the case with communication, many definitions have been suggested for culture. We quote a definition of culture for the sake of making the recurring theme of how culture and communication are linked together more clearly. Samovar (2000) defines culture as a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of a society used to cope with their world and with one another and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning. Culture is ubiquitous, multidimensional, complex, and all-pervasive. As economic globalization has become a hot topic during these days, international communications are common among different peoples from different countries. International communications are intercultural communications. During the process, both of the members hope it will go on successfully. But in fact, when people cause misunderstanding or worsen the relationships between them, they often think that it is caused by the language itself. They may ignore misunderstanding due to the cultural backgrounds and cultural differences. So learning the cultural differences about Eastern and Western cultures is very necessary, and festival culture is one aspect of foreign culture.
Most of us will think that everyone does the same thing in the similar way like us. Of course, this viewpoint is not right. If we take things like this, it will lead to communicative problems. And it may also cause a great loss for the two parties. If we are conscious of the differences in advance, communications will go on more successfully. It is very important on some occasions, for example, commercial affairs,
and political affairs as it has something to do with the benefits between them. At the same time, people can also know about different cultures by learning foreign cultures. It is beneficial to us and others. So people should study the cultural differences among different countries in order to make intercultural communications more efficiently
The most important days are set as festivals to celebrate. During these days, something special to people’s existence, development happens to the people. When
the festivals come, people will celebrate them with different ways and activities. The festival customs are learned from generation to generation, so everyone has special feelings to those festivals.
Spring Festival is one of the most important festivals in China, while Christmas is one of the most important festivals in the Western countries. The main customs have remained for long. The two festivals play a very important role in forming people’s thoughts, and they also influence people’s ways of doing things in daily life.
Some scholars have studied different aspects about the two festivals. Han Lijuan (2009) said, “Through comparison of festival customs, we could know more about their culture.” Another scholar Wang Chunyang (2002) said, “Spring Festival and
Christmas are two popular festivals in China and West. They have some similar aspects, such as love, reunion, friendship.” In this paper, we will involve the two
typical different festivals to study in order to have a deep research about their different customs. Then we are going to analyze the cultural differences between them.
Festival and Festivals in the West and China
2.1 The Definitions of Festival and Culture
Macmillan Dictionary(2002) points out that culture is a set of ideas, beliefs, and ways of behaving of a particular organization or group of people. While the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000) says that Festival is an occasion for feasting or celebration, especially a day or time of significance that recurs at regular intervals. There are many festivals in the West and China. Every traditional festival has a long history, and people have special feelings about them. 2.2 Festivals in the West and China
The main traditional festivals in China are Spring Festival, Tomb-sweeping Festival？Dragon Boat Festival？Mid-Autumn (Moon)Festival？and Double-ninth Day
etc. Tomb-sweeping Festival falls on April 4-6 each year. After the festival, the temperature will rise up and rainfall increases. It is the high time for spring plowing and sowing. Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. It is said that it memorizes Qu Yuan, a minster during the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BC). Mid-Autumn (Moon) Festival is a festival for getting together. People miss their relatives more than any other day. It is on 15th, August. Double-ninth Day, just like its name, is on 9th day of the ninth lunar month. On this day, people climb mountains and appreciate chrysanthemum flowers together.
In West, there are also many traditional festivals, such as Christmas Day, Easter Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Halloween Day etc. Easter is from 22nd March to 25th April. It is an important holiday in Western countries. Chickens are usually born. Many children buy chocolate Easter eggs and also make Easter eggs. Halloween is on October 31st. On this day, there are a lot of pumpkin lights in front of house. They are very beautiful. Every family has a lot of candies as children go to knock their doors, then people will give them sweets. Thanksgiving Day began with the first European
settlers in America. They gathered their crops, celebrated and gave thanks for their food. It falls on the fourth Thursday in December in America.
From the introduction of those main festivals, we know the diverse festivals in West and China. Each of these festivals has a long history and includes diverse cultural elements. We will introduce the two typical festivals, namely Spring Festival and Christmas, to have a deep understanding about the cultural differences between Chinese and Western traditional festivals.
The Customs of Christmas
Christmas is one of the most popular festivals. It has a long history and influences the different aspects of people’s life. In the following content, we will
involve the main customs of Christmas.
3.1 Santa Claus
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a fat, jolly man with a white beard, a red suit and a sleigh full of toys drawn through the air by eight reindeer. Santa Claus (also called Saint Nicholas and Saint Nick) is said to visit on Christmas Eve, entering houses through the chimney to leave the presents under the Christmas tree in the stockings of all good children. Although this familiar image of Santa Claus is a 19th century North American invention, it has ancient European roots and continues to influence the celebration of Christmas throughout the world.
The historical Santa Claus was venerated in early Christian legend for saving storm-tossed sailors, defending children, and giving generous gifts to the poor. Although many of the stories about Santa Claus are doubtful authenticity (for instance, he is said to have delivered a bag of gold to a poor family by tossing it through a window), his legend spread throughout Europe, emphasizing his role as a traditional bringer of gifts.
The fully detailed modern image of Santa Claus plays an important part in Christmas celebrations around the world. People are reminded of Santa Claus through advertising, greeting cards, decorations, and the annual appearance of Santa Claus in department stores and shopping malls (in some cases accompanied by Mrs. Claus and Santa’s elves). Children write letters to Santa Claus and set out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve as a snack for Santa Claus.
3.2 Christmas Tree
For families in North America and other parts of Europe, the Christmas tree is the symbol of the Christmas season. Other evergreens have been a part of mild-winter festivals long before Christmas. They played a symbolic part because they stayed green and alive when other plants appeared bare and dead. They represented everlasting life and hope for the return of spring. Primitive European tribes hang evergreens above their homes in hope of receiving good fortune and good health in return.
Christmas tree used specifically to celebrate Christmas is mentioned in the early 1600’s in Germany and surrounding countries. The families would set up these trees in a prominent location of their homes and decorate them with colored paper, small toys, food, and sometimes candles. As these people moved or immigrated to other countries, they brought this tradition with them.
Through the years many different things were used to decorate Christmas trees. As the world moved into the 1900’s, many trees were decorated with strings of
popcorn, homemade cards and pictures, cotton to look like snow, candies in all shapes and sizes, and occasionally, fancy store made glass balls and hand blown glass figurines. Candles were sometimes used, but often caused devastating fires, launching the invention of many different types of candle holders to prevent tree fires. Electric tree lights were first used just three years after Thomas Edison held his first mass public demonstration of electric lights in 1879. The early Christmas tree lights were handmade and quite expensive. On the top of the tree, there was always a star. Christmas star symbolizes high hopes and high ideals-hope for good fortune, hope for reaching above oneself.
Today Christmas tree ornaments can be found in nearly every size, color, and shape imaginable, and they are used to decorate millions of Christmas trees throughout the world.
3.3 Christmas Colors
There are many colors associated with Christmas such as the red of holly berries, of Santa Claus’s or Father Christmas’ outfit; the green of fir trees; the gold of candles
and stars; and the whiteness of snowy fields.
Red is the prominent color and is also the color of the month December. As a religious symbol it stands for fire, blood and charity.
Green is a symbol for nature, youth and the hope of eternal life. With a newborn child as its central symbol, Christmas is a feast of hope.
White is a religious symbol which stands for light, purity, joy and glory. White is seen in the robes of Christmas angels, in Santa’s beard and suit trimmings, as well as
in Christmas snow and snow flakes. In the warmer climate, the snow is artificial, so as to show the link with the Northern Yuletide.
Gold stands for sunlight and radiance. It is the color of Christmas stars, tinsel, candles, and electric lights. Christians who were once pagans saw their new God as they had the Sun-the radiant being who lights the world. Many artists show Christ in a pool of light, or with a bright halo around his head.
The reason people started singing at Christmas time came from the ideal that angels sang when they appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem to announce Jesus Christ’s birth. The meaning of a carol in the present day is much more different than the original one. A carol was a secular dance which was performed at any time of the year. People dances around in a circle holding hands and singing songs.
The dance reminded onlookers of a coronet so they called it a “carol”. The name
was transferred later on from the dance to the song itself. Carols by the 16th century were sung only at Christmas time. The subject also related to Christmas.
At one stage the Christmas carols were only sung by the bishop and clergy in church. Soon carols became popular amongst the public and were sung in the streets and in other public places.
At some time in the past the singing of Christmas carols was known as “wassailing”. This term was applied to the custom of a group of people, mainly children, going from house to house and stopping in front of each house to sing a carol, in hopes they would receive a reward.
The word “wassail” dates back to pre-Christian days and practices and is derived from the Anglo Saxon was hale, which was an expression of a wish for good health.
Wassailing was not only done to foster goodwill, but also out of concern to see nature renew itself after the harsh winter months.
In the run up to Christmas most houses and streets are decorated with Christmas trees and lots of colored lights. The sound of carols and Christmas song can be heard everywhere-especially in shops. In many parts of the US, carolers will go from house to house singing Christmas songs.
Christmas cards are sent to friends and relatives, and most homes will have a tree which is decorated with lights, tinsels and lots of colorful ornaments-many of them handmade over the years. Presents are placed under the tree ready to be opened on Christmas Day.
Children write letters to Santa Claus, telling him what present they would like to receive for Christmas, and many stores have their own “Santa” for children to meet.
Many people attend church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning. The churches are decorated with evergreens, poinsettias and scenes of the Nativity. After the evening service on Christmas Eve, the family will gather together for a time of celebration. Adults often drink eggnog- a drink made of cream, milk, sugar, beaten eggs and brandy or rum and children drink hot cocoa, apple cider. “The Night before
Christmas” is read to children before they go to bed to await the arrival of Santa Claus, who arrives in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Stockings are hung up so that Santa can fill them with candies, fruit and other small gifts.
The traditional Christmas Dinner is eaten on Christmas Day. This usually consists of roast turkey (or goose), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and a variety of other dishes. Desserts include mince pie, pumpkin pie, plum pudding and fruitcake. There is a great variety of food eaten at this time of year on different places. But over the years the recipe has changed.
The exchanging of Christmas presents can be traced back to an ancient Roman custom of gift giving which was practiced at Saturnalia when the custom was Christianized, the custom was explained as a symbol of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that the Magi had carried with them from the East when they travelled to pay homage to the newborn Jesus Christ.
Today it is common that people receive lots of gifts from relatives and friends. Children usually get more gifts from adults, and they are very happy at this time of every year.
The Customs of Spring Festival
Spring Festival has a long history and involves the great population. It is sure that Spring Festival is one of the most important festivals in China. It has a lot of interesting customs. In order to present readers with a picture of the festival, we will involve the main customs of Spring Festival.
4.1 Eating the Laba Rice Porridge
The eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, called “Laba”, is a symbol of the
coming Spring Festival. People would like to eat the seasonal food “Laba Rice
porridge” on this day, so this meal is also called “the messenger porridge”.
The Laba festival originates from La Ri (the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month), an important sacrificial day at the end of the year in the old times. In the primitive society where the gods were worshipped, people think that they live in the mercy of the natural gods. So they held grand rituals for the gods during this period. According to Notes on the Seasonal Festivals in Jing and Chu, “The 8th day of the
12th lunar month is the La Ri”.
There are various legends about the origin of the rice porridge. One is that Zhu Yuanzhang(1328-1398), the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, was a beggar in his youth and cooked all the rice and beans that he had gotten from other people into a pot of porridge. As we know, later he became an emperor. So it is said that this kind of porridge can bring good luck. From generation to generation, Chinese people like to eat the rice porridge on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month. 4.2 Waving Goodbye to the Kitchen God on the Minor New Year’s
The Minor New Year’s Day comes after the Laba festival. It is on the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month in Northern China and on the 24th day of the twelfth lunar month in Southern China. The Minor New Year’s Day is the prelude to Spring