Christmas has become a popular holiday in China, but Chinese Christians continue to celebrate as they always have.
Chinese people give each other apples on Christmas Eve. Ping An Ye, the Mandarin word for this holy day, sounds similar to pingguo, the word for apple. The Chinese have claimed Christmas for themselves, and have begun creating their own traditions for this new holiday that is stripped from most all semblances of holiness. Only 1% of Chinese are Christian, and I have strong doubts that many who now practice Christmas really understand its connection to a religion.
Christmas is both a cultural and a religious holiday, and the two can be separated here in China as they can be just about everywhere else in the world. The holiday has become multi-tiered, and in its current rendition you don’t have to be a believer to engage in a holiday of gift giving, costumes, family, and strange stories, and the same jingly songs played over and over.
“Why do you celebrate Christmas?” I asked a young Chinese woman.
“Because we like the holiday,” was her simple reply.
There are Christmas trees everywhere in China now — giant ones in front of malls, small ones in corners of restaurants, and in myriad high-rise windows. Like KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and McDonalds, in China, Christmas is Chinese. Santa Claus is called Sheng Dan Lao Ren, and he is a fat, bearded white dude who plays the saxophone and sells shit in department stores. Christmas is the time girlfriends and wives buy themselves a lot of presents. Christmas is the time when little kids get dressed up as elves and run around shopping malls. China absorbs and China-fies Western traditions like they did economics and social structuring: they take what they like, leave the rest, and make it their own.
This is a culture that’s striving hard to construct its identity, and they’re doing it like strolling through a shopping mall, bagging what catches their eye — or whatever’s on sale.
I wrote about Christmas in China in depth last year: Christmas in China and the Chinese phenomenon of appropriating, innovating, then claiming other cultural traditions at China Absorbs Other Traditions and Makes them Chinese.
I didn’t receive any apples this year Christmas Eve. I spent the holiday in a windowless hotel room, alone. I was in Taizhou trying to finish up a couple of stories that I’d been working on, and it wasn’t until I returned to that small, dark — through cheap — cave of a hotel room at night that I realized how I totally fucked up this holiday this year. Holidays are hit or miss affairs for travelers, some years you find yourself surrounded by people you like, booze, and laughs, and sometimes you find yourself alone in windowless hotel rooms. I always pretend that things like holidays don’t matter much to me, but when I realize they do it’s always too late.
The following morning I went to church. Taizhou has the distinction of having an extremely old sect of Chinese Christians. The adjective “old” has a double meaning here, as the tradition as well as the people themselves meet its criteria. To be clear, these are not the trendy, young, new middle class type of Christian that’s starting to materialize across East Asia. No, these followers of the cross are extremely elderly — they appear as old as I imagine humans can look without being corpses. They hobble, they’re bent over, they walk through the aisles using the edges of the pews as hand rails — but I found myself very impressed that they could do that at their extremely advanced age. A member of this church made the Chinese news some years ago for turning 107 years old, and from the looks of things many of her peers are still here, dutifully coming to church each Sunday, each holiday.
The tradition of this congregation extends back for over a century. Christianity was introduced in 1887, and Pearl S. Buck’s father used to ride up on horseback from Zhenjiang to preach here.
Unlike the congregation and the tradition here, the church is relatively modern. This surprised me, as it is built in the traditional Western style. It was built with government approval in two stages, the first ending in 1997, the second in 2005. It is large, made of plank boards painted white, has stained glass windows and a steeple topped with a large cross. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the countryside of Virginia, but in the center of Taizhou, hugged on both sides by mid-rise, block-shaped, modern concrete monstrosities, it looked about as inconspicuous as a birch tree in a desert.
Read more about this at Easter in China.
On Christmas morning the church was packed. A sea of grey and black coats topped with poofy knit and leather, fur lined caps extended all the way to the stage. I managed to land a seat in the last pew in the rear of the hall. The choir here is a serious contingent — they’re good. I was lured in by their song during a practice session late one night a year and a half before. They stood in rows behind the alter, singing church songs and folk songs — changing the words of the latter to make them Christian. The room was freezing, and I laughed as I remembered the familiar horror of sitting on a cold hardwood pew from my childhood. The priest stepped up to the pulpit and gave an extended sermon. People walked in and out and shuffled on the pews, attention was diverted through the church until the next song was sung. Everybody then rose together, and sang their version of Mo Li Hua.
It was as close to Christmas as I could get in China.
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