Chinese Christmas
Part of a series on how different communities in SF celebrate winter holidays. Graphic by Will Jarrett.

Read in Spanish / Leer en español

The change began with a deal. A month ago, a group of community advocates began offering free “LED energy-saving lights that are easy and safe to install” to businesses in Chinatown that wanted to decorate for the holidays. Responses arrived swiftly. Within three days, 151 small businesses signed up for the Christmas lights.

“This is actually the first time we’ve lit up Chinatown specifically for Christmas,” said one organizer at a special launch event for the lights. 

Amid all the other illuminated decorations in Chinatown, the lights look quaint, at best. But for small businesses suffering from the pandemic, Christmas offers an unmissable opportunity to boost revenue; putting up free Christmas lights was an offer worth grabbing. Once installed, the locals made every effort to get the media there. One popular store owner, who was interviewed on TV a year and half a year ago about how she helped dozens of businesses survive the pandemic, was encouraged by other merchants eager to help to invite the same reporter back to Chinatown to cover the event.

“Americans like Christmas spirit … ” said a message in a community WeChat group, and the hope is that these lights will draw more customers to the stores who hang them.

It warrants mentioning: These are regular Christmas lights. They are barely visible beneath the dazzling lanterns and neon lights that already dot Chinatown. And yet, they’ve been given the role of anchoring a “Holiday Light Fest” and even assigned the crucial task of “passing on Chinese culture,” per one report in the Chinese-language press.

For the most part, however, Christmas isn’t a tradition for people of Chinese descent in San Francisco, who make up almost 23 percent of the city. While it is too soon to tell if the lights will do their magic and lure new customers, most in Chinatown see the holidays, at least for the neighborhood’s plentiful seniors, as a time when the area’s rich network of social workers and nonprofits function almost like a real-life Santa Claus. 

“They have something for the elderly every festival in Chinatown, to make us happy,” said Suzhu Mai, 80, gesturing to her fingerless gloves, the reusable shopping bag at her side and the thermos inside, all of which were gifts she had received for previous Christmases. 

Similarly, for Xie, a 70-year-old dim-sum chef, Christmas is a chance to reconnect with a loved one in a faraway place — his son runs a Chinese restaurant in Brazil — but also a time for gifts. “I have no plans for Christmas, except that my son will send me a red envelope via WeChat. He sends me a red envelope every holiday,” said Xie, who was enjoying the warmth of the winter sun in Portsmouth Square. 

For the religious Chinese in the city, Christmas transcends store-bought Christmas lights.

Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the 160-year-old Catholic church towering in the south of Chinatown, is expecting an influx of attendees on Dec. 25. Many of them may be “CEOs,” meaning Christians who go to church on Christmas and Easter only, according to Deacon Simon Tsui. This Saturday, Christmas caroling will be followed by a “midnight” mass that takes place in the afternoon, a time switch that began during the pandemic. And, on Christmas Day, as on every other Sunday, a mass will be conducted in both Cantonese and English.

“If we compare with Spanish-speaking Catholics from South America or Middle America, Chinese Catholics in San Francisco are much rarer,” said Tsui, whose congregants are mostly first-generation Chinese immigrants. “But then, we also have some American-born Chinese here. Their parents might attend church services, and then the kids keep coming,” he said. 

Tsui is too busy during Christmas for vacation. The same is true during Chinese New Year, when Old Saint Mary’s incorporates Chinese culture into its rituals to pay tribute to congregants’ ancestors.

Outside of Chinatown, for the many younger members of the Chinese community, Christmas is something much simpler: A respite from the busyness of life and work. 

“Christmas means having my own time to ‘lie flat.’ I have no shopping plans or trips planned, only some cheerful dinner dates with good friends,” said Jasmine Zhu, 26, an architect whose project deadlines extended till Dec. 22.

As for me, my plan goes along similar lines. This Christmas I’ll be staying in my apartment to take a break from writing. Instead, I’ll be setting aside some time to finally catch up on my reading. 

Follow Us

REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *