The evolution of Christmas Eve in China [Updated]

In China, Christmas Eve is actually called “Peaceful Night” (平安夜 — after the Chinese translation of the song “Silent Night”), but peaceful is the one thing it definitely isn’t. Here’s a short post about Christmas Eve in urban China, from a foreigner who’s witnessed it go from nothing to the spectacle it is today in just a few short years: Some Thoughts on “Ping An Ye” (Silent Night)
An here’s a Chinese perspective, translated into English: Christmas in Shanghai

For more about the odd creature Christmas Eve has become in China (with pictures!), see:

Merry… something, from Tianjin! :)

Midnight on Christmas Eve 2009 in Tianjin, China (they call it “Peaceful Night” 平安夜):

If you put New Year’s, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day and the commercial side of Christmas into a blender and then reincarnated the unappetizing mush into an overpopulated midnight carnival, you’d have Christmas Eve in Tianjin. Clowns, stage shows, blowing artificial snow (soap-sud machines), a countdown to midnight (pictured above), and a bunch of foreigners performing Christmas carols (us) were all out two nights ago among the masses and their blinky, battery-powered headgear. In between our two performances on stage there was a choreographed Michael Jackson dance routine by five 5-foot tall pelvis-thrusting minors who looked way too young to be grabbing the front of their pants that way in public (pictured left).

Random strangers occasionally asked to get their picture taken with us, since we’re foreigners. We obliged, of course, and I got my revenge when I saw this line up of 90-pound Santas:

But it was all for a good cause. A local company decided they wanted to get into the real spirit of Christmas by holding a fundraiser for the Special Education Project. They aggressively hawked these LED Christmas candle things all day and night to the throngs of people on Tianjin’s two busiest outdoor shopping streets, which is Christmas Eve Central for T. The two girls pictured on the right had me and a friend cornered before we had a chance to tell them we were with the group they were raising money for.

Since we’re associates of the N.G.O. that was receiving the money, the company asked us to put together some songs for before and after the midnight countdown. We had a group of carolers, which included some of our local friends and students, two guitars and a flute. They wanted us to get the crowd into it, and below you can see the line of police in front of the stage holding back all our rabid 粉丝. Ok, maybe they’re not actually our fěnsī, but they were in a good mood and it wasn’t hard to get a response from the crowd; all we had to do was show up. They’re supposed to play part of it on TV today, so I may have finally made it on TV in Tianjin. :) Here’s our the helmeted crowd control:

It didn’t actually feel all that Christmasy, but at least it was something to mark the day. Actually, packing into an apartment with a bunch of friends (Chinese, German, Brazilian, Canadian, American) earlier in the evening to practice the songs over snacks and coffee wasn’t a bad way to spend a Christmas Eve. For two of my students it was the first time they’d done anything to celebrate Christmas, so that was kind of special. A few more photos below (none of these photos are mine; I was too busy playing guitar).

All these blobs are the blowing artificial snow soapsud bubbles (it looked cooler in real life):

These are the LED things they sold for the fundraiser:

If I can find any photos of us on stage, I’ll add them below when I get them.


Friends who also wrote on this surreal experience:

[2010 Jan 08] Here we are in the newspaper:

The caption says:

The other day Tianjin TV’s “Art & Entertainment Food 8 Street” news column at Heping Lu business walking street held a groundbreaking special evening party, not only was there brilliant cultural performances, also can’t count the many different kinds of interactive games spectators were invited to participate in. Additionally, foreign volunteers working in Tianjin from the USA, France, Italy and etc. countries also got on stage and sang impromptu songs for the audience. Newspaper reporter: Cao Tongshe

Of course, we didn’t have anyone from France or Italy, but hey, who’s counting?
[2010 Jan 18] Finally got hold of some shots of us on stage:

Other Christmas and Christmas-in-Tianjin posts:

Christmas Eve… with Chinese characteristics

Christmas Eve, 2008 (written at 4:30pm)
When I parked my bike outside the gym before lunch, “Uncle” Li, who watches the bikes and sometimes feels my pants to see if I’m wearing enough layers, was talking with his taxi driver buddies trying to figure out which comes first: Peaceful Night (平安夜/Christmas Eve) or Christmas. “Christmas Eve is tomorrow, right? And today is Christmas?” he guessed. Less than two hours later I eavesdropped on the same basic conversation in a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop while eating lunch, except this time the chef guessed correctly.

Santa Claus decorations are everywhere, but Christmas isn’t all that meaningful to the average Mainlander; even some Mainland Christians have told me how the holiday doesn’t really mean anything special to them. Everyone still goes to work like any other day, even the English teachers. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t noticeable curiosity in something that many Mainlanders see as exotic. Every year Christmas services in Tianjin are packed, even by Chinese standards (I suspect this might also be due to the relatively small number of churches).

The two main churches in town are “Old Xīkāi” (老西开), a French cathedral in what’s become the most popular and trendy shopping district, and Shānxī Road (山西路), a TSPM church not too far away from Xīkāi Cathedral. Tonight at Shānxī Lù, for example, one of our English teacher friends says her students plan to get there at 4:30 for a Christmas Eve service that starts at 7:00 because they’re afraid they might not all get seats otherwise.

Xīkāi is offering an English-language “foreign passport holders only” service in a building next door to the cathedral at 6:30pm, and a Chinese-language midnight mass that is open to all (I assume, as I’m going). The only Chinese nationals in attendance at the English-language service will be the choir. Part of the rationale for not having the English service in the cathedral, which is beautiful, is because it’s Christmas Eve and it would be difficult to hold the service amidst the hordes of local tourists who will be running around taking pictures. Part of the rationale for forbidding locals to attend an English language church service presided over by a foreigner is… outside the scope of this post. (Photo at left is not from Xīkāi.) You can read Xīkāi’s English introduction for yourself here.

Originally we were getting sent by the magazine to do some PR at a 5-star hotel Christmas banquet, but that fell through at the last minute. Jessica has a miserable cold and is going to bed early, otherwise I’d suggest we take a stab at both churches. Instead, I’ll go alone and meet a friend at the midnight mass. I know, I’m a terrible husband, sneaking off without my wife to go to church on Christmas Eve! In the morning we’ll skype our families.

In Tianjin it’s easy for Christmas to come and go without feeling like it’s come and gone — I want something significant and meaningful to mark the event. Plus I’m curious to see the local Tianjin Christmas curiosity for myself. I wonder if the crowds will be less at a midnight mass this year on account of it being midnight on a weekday. We’ll see! It will be maybe my second time ever to attend any kind of mass.

[*…fast-forward about eight hours…*]

Christmas Morning, 2008 (written at 12:20am)
The banner says (I think):

“Celebrate/congratulate Jesus holy birth”
qìnghè Yēsū shèngdàn

Legions of police were deployed for crowd control for blocks around the church. I arrived just after 11pm (an hour early). I joined the crowd and was effectively herded in one side door of the church, past the altar, and out the other side door. On the way in some people (who were almost all young people) stopped to light candles. A kid next to me made the sign of the cross while walking past the altar. The seating area, which was packed solid wall to wall with several hundred, maybe over a thousand people, was roped off. I didn’t have time to even think about pulling out the camera and finding a seat was out of the question. Shannon’s English students who went three hours early to the Shānxī Lù church had the right idea. We exited the church grounds through the main gate, where cops with megaphones told us to hurry it up.

The cathedral is in Tianjin’s biggest trendiest outdoor shopping district, and tonight it was literally “people mountain people sea” (人山人海). It was a real festival atmosphere, with lots of street food vendors, balloons, young people, a stage show with clowns, and that special battery-powered bling Chinese love so much (most popular battery-powered headgear: Santa hats with flashing red hearts, devil horns, bunny ears, and carnival masks).

Christmas is seen by many as a lovers’ holiday somewhat akin to Valentine’s Day, and of course, a time to shop. Thousands of midnight shoppers wanted to come take photos of the cathedral and they crowded around the police lines with their cameras. With all the police barricades, it took me 15 minutes to walk from the church back to my bike; normally that’d be a one minute walk. This was the scene facing away from the cathedral’s main gate toward the shopping streets:

I am cold and sleepy and going to bed! Merry Christmas! 圣诞快乐