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

6 thoughts on “Christmas Eve… with Chinese characteristics”

  1. Christmas has become a festival for happy-hour in China. Most young people take this opptunity to relax. there is no reason why we celebrate it although we are not christcian. happiness is the most important.

  2. Well, since you state “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.” I won’t go into too much detail, but I would assume the ‘problem’ is more with Chinese law than anything else. I think that’s important to state upfront so that people don’t get the wrong impression.

    @ivanka: Most Westerners treat Christmas the same way, and in reality, the festival has its origins in ancient pagan festivals with which the modern celebration of Christmas has more in common than it does with the traditional Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

  3. Aside from the date and a very few originally-pagan symbols that have completely lost their pagan meanings, I don’t think modern Christmas carries much ancient pagan influence… unless we want to count wanton Western consumerism as a pagan religion (not saying we shouldn’t). =) I could be wrong… it’s been a long time since that particular history course. Anyway, just saying that I’d attribute most of the current deviations from the Christian Christmas more to modern influences and less to ancient ones.

    Although it seems that Mainlanders have noticed that Christmas has something to do with church (I’m thinking here of the Santa Claus and reindeer painted on the side of the Wanghailou church and the crowds at Christmas Eve services), apparently it’s the pagan side of this holiday that’s really catching on with the economically privileged urban masses.

    This reminds me: when we visited the Museum of World Religion in Taibei, I was surprised to find that their website’s Christianity section centered on Santa Claus. Interesting the cross-cultural impressions that are made!

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