Last night was Christmas Eve in China, so my WeChat account was full of apple emojis and festive messages.
“Don’t you give each other apples on Christmas Eve in America?” multiple friends asked.
That Americans give each other apples on Christmas Eve appears to be a common misperception in China. Although it’s a big tradition in China, many Chinese people don’t even know they invented it.
“Giving apples on Christmas is what kind of a custom?” a questioner asked on Guokr, a Chinese Q-and-A website. Another question asked, “Is eating an apple on Christmas Eve something Chinese people invented? Just because it is homophonic [(in Chinese)]?”
When I first received apples from Chinese people on Christmas Eve in 2014, that’s what I thought, too—that the tradition was because of the homophone sound. “Christmas Eve” translates to ping’an ye (平安夜), which literally means “Peaceful Night” or “Silent Night” (the same as the name of the song in Chinese). Apple is pingguo, and the character is also similar (苹果).
Chinese love homophones, as they bring good luck. During Spring Festival, for example, Chinese will eat fish, because “having fish” (you yu – 有鱼) is homophonic to “having extra/surplus” (you yu – 有余) at the end of the year. Another popular Spring Festival dish is cabbage (bai cai – 白菜), because it sounds like “much wealth”/“hundred wealth” (bai cai – 百财).
Because Mandarin Chinese has many characters with the same sound but and four tones, there are many homophones.
Clearly the homophonic value of apples is important, but there are a few other reasons for the apple tradition pointed to on Guokr, and some of them even derive from Western culture.
One respondent pointed to a poem written in the 1700’s and sung as a carol called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.”
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.
He also mentioned the German tradition of hiding a “paradise apple” on Christmas trees, as described by Francine McKenna-Klein of BellaOnline:
This is a Paradiesapfel, a German Weihnachten tradition that has a religious background. An evergreen fir tree has been a symbol of Hope and Life during dark winters since pre-Christian times, and for generations in our homes too. At least until the needles begin to fall.
Hidden among the branches of some Christmas Trees in Germany will be a highly polished red apple, the Paradise Apple.
It’s hard to say that these traditions, little-known, as they are, even in the United States, are the impetus for the Chinese tradition. More likely a Guokr answerer was hunting for information tying apples to a Christmas tradition. It is the case that traditions get started and then myths get created to back them up later—as with so many Christmas traditions and myths the world over.
Giving apples on Christmas is what kind of a custom? – Guokr (Chinese)
Is eating an apple on Christmas Eve something Chinese people invented? Just because it is homophonic? – Guokr (Chinese)
Why is Jesus Christ an Apple Tree? – h2g2
Christmas Tree Apple, the Paradiesapfel – BellaOnline
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.