How is Christmas celebrated in China? As a Christian festival, a commercial festival? A Chinese friend has been observing recent developments in a society where Christians are very much in the minority. Despite the difficulties (“shadows”; see below), they even offer each other apples during a vigil that can last five hours! The Good News is still relevant today.
A growing commercial Christmas…
Christians in China make up around 1% of the country’s population, so most people don’t know the narrative of Christmas or what it represents. With globalisation, shopkeepers take advantage of the season to run promotions to boost their turnover. Plastic Christmas trees decorated with coloured lights and images of Father Christmas can be seen everywhere, in front of and in the shops. Department stores often organise events where Santa delivers presents and takes photos with children. During this period, shop assistants and deliverymen go about their work wearing Santa hats. Obviously, for them, Christmas is not celebrated as a religious holiday, but rather as a commercial one.
But for Christians
Christmas is the most important traditional festival for Christians in China. The most important part of celebrating Christmas is attending mass in church, especially midnight mass. Priests often celebrate the Vigil, Midnight and Day masses several times in different places for their parishioners who are unable to travel because of distance, lack of transport or the discouraging (clandestine) atmosphere. On Christmas Eve, in town and country, Christians gather together to pray and watch for the coming of Christ.
For those who, for professional reasons, work away from home on a daily basis and are alone, they look for a church where they can attend mass (separated from the family). In China there are no official Christmas holidays because of its Christian origins.
About twenty years ago, in some provinces, during the Vigil, while waiting for Midnight Mass and the parish priest who travelled for several Masses, the parishioners and their children prayed the rosary together. Together, they also listened to the five teachings given by the people with the most training in the Christian faith or by nuns. The five teachings were: “The Sin of the Angels” (who fell through pride), “Original Sin”, “The Annunciation”, “The Visitation” and “The Nativity”.
Over the years, the way we celebrate Christmas has changed a great deal. Around the year 2000, even in the countryside, people began to put up nativity scenes, Christmas trees, coloured balloons and garlands in front of and inside the church or gathering place. After the Vigil mass, the 5 teachings are replaced by shows, sketches, songs, stories set to music (etc.), which act out or tell the biblical stories, in a festive atmosphere. So it’s no longer the people appointed to teach, but parishioners of all ages who are actors and even authors of these various plays. And this attracts more young people, even non-believers, especially in town on Christmas Eve. After midnight mass, a person dressed as Father Christmas distributes gifts such as sweets, fruit and small objects to all the participants. After a 5-hour vigil, the Christians go home to rest and come back the next day for Mass. After mass, the young families join their parents for a festive meal, if they wish, or everyone goes home and has a festive meal with their own family, as it is not traditional to have a whole extended family together for Christmas.
A new custom!
It has appeared in recent years, particularly in cities. Christians give each other apples on Christmas Eve, which the Chinese call “Píng ān yè” (平安夜), meaning “Peaceful Night”. They make a pun between that of “apple”, which translates as “píng guǒ” (苹果) and that of “peace” “Píng ān” (平安) .
So giving an apple on Christmas Eve is a symbol of peace! These apples, like all the others, are wrapped in coloured paper, which many shops sell! Eating an apple is said to make for a peaceful and safe New Year. It’s a healthy, environmentally-friendly gift, but it also has a lovely message!
A shadow over Christmas
As you know, the Church in China is unfortunately divided in two: the “official Church” and the “underground Church”. The “official Church” depends on the Chinese government and the “underground Church” depends on the Holy See. The underground church has been severely repressed by the government in recent years, and many churches have been demolished. The government forces Christians to register under certain conditions, otherwise bishops and priests are either arrested or monitored and deprived of celebrations.
What’s more, in front of the church there are not only cameras, but also security guards on hand to monitor the situation. Young people under 18 are banned by the government from entering the church for mass or catechism classes. Even at school, before major festivals, teachers tell children not to go to church with their parents to attend mass, otherwise there will be consequences…
Every year, around 23 to 25 December, all churches and places of worship are closely monitored by the government. To celebrate Christmas together with young people and children, the underground church is obliged to bring the date forward and choose locations, often in the countryside or in the suburbs in private homes, or to hire a large room in a hotel in the name of a banquet to celebrate the birth of Jesus. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that in the middle of mass public security personnel will arrive, and the priest will have to flee with the help of the Christians. The official Church, on the other hand, can hold “normal” Christmas celebrations, but with all the restrictions of the government, which has staff in place to monitor the celebrations.
Christmas 2023 is just around the corner. What will happen in China for brothers and sisters in Christ this year? Is it possible to spend the “Silent Night” in peace? What is certain is that nothing can prevent the Saviour from coming to the hearts of Christians in China (cf. Lk 2:10-11). He is Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us” (Mt 1:23). This is the Good News announced by the angel of the Lord 2,000 years ago, but it is still relevant today!