How Does China Celebrate Christmas?
A headless angel and a missing ‘Baby Jesus’ were the casualties sustained by my nativity scene set after it was shown to nearly 1,000 Chinese students during Christmas a few years ago. Of course, what did I expect? I allowed students to ‘carefully’ handle the figurines because I wanted them to better understand the Christmas story that I was telling them. Unfortunately, some of the students were not quite as ‘careful’ as I would have liked.
Since then, I have decided that nativity scenes are better left somewhere far away from prying hands. Nonetheless, I have found that wherever I teach in China, students are fascinated by the story of Christmas and how this holiday is celebrated in the West.
While Christmas has become more popular in China even during the last few years, it has been stripped of its religious significance and is generally celebrated as a materialistic holiday at least in the public eye.
“Christmas is about giving gifts,” a student answered recently when I asked about the significance of this holiday in China.
“It’s a day to spend time with friends and play,” another student answered. Still, many of my friends and students are vaguely familiar with the story of Christmas. In fact, the University where I teach offers a class called ‘Shen Jing’ (Bible Class) where students learn about Christianity. Interestingly enough, the students that I teach tell me that their Bible teacher is actually a Buddhist. How much they have actually learned about Christmas or the Bible is unclear.
My students also tell me that Christmas is a holiday for the younger generation.
“Our parents don’t know anything about Christmas,” explained a student to me today. Her parents probably grew up in a time when celebrating or even acknowledging Christmas in China was frowned upon by the Chinese government.
These days, Beijing has no problem with the celebration of Christmas so long as it is devoid of religion and promotes social harmony.
Just a few years ago in China, I had to find my way to the back corner of a local market place to buy a fake Christmas tree and decorations. Now it seems that the big supermarkets in China offer a large variety of Christmas items for very reasonable prices.
It is also easier than ever to ‘catch’ the Christmas spirit in China, as stores – both large and small -play familiar Christmas tunes for their customers. Hearing the words ‘Ding, Ding, Dong’ instead of the words ‘Jingle Bells’ may be a bit strange at first, but it least it sounds like the same song. Many stores also feature their own beautifully decorated Christmas trees as well as special holiday season discounts which help foreigners like me to feel much more at home.
While the vast majority of Chinese people may view Christmas in a purely materialistic light, all is not lost. There are millions of Christians in China who celebrate Christmas either at the church or in the privacy of their own homes. For these people of faith, Christmas carries far more significance than the Chinese Spring Festival, which begins just a few weeks later.
Christianity, in fact, is growing exponentially in China. I recently asked some of my Chinese friends if they thought that the rapid spread of Christianity in China could ever result in Christmas being made into a national holiday.
“Not a chance,” was the answer. “The Communist Party could never allow a religious holiday to become a national holiday in China.” Good point. However, times are changing and there is no question that the Chinese government has become much more tolerant of religion in the last decade. Who knows what might happen in another decade?