China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2003/Dec

Christmas Memories

A Light will shine on us this day. The Lord is born for us. He shall be called Wonderful Counsellor. Mighty God. Prince of Peace. (Is 9:2, 6)

In 1981, for the first time in 20 years, the sound of ancient Christmas carols resounded merrily through the few open churches of China. In 1982, on Christmas Eve, for the first time in 16 years, the bells of the Cathedral at Xujiahui, Shanghai, rang out joyously the birth of Christ in our world. More than 20 years have passed since these momentous events took place, but they are still vividly remembered with gratitude by millions of Chinese Christians who again this year make their way to church to celebrate an event that changed the course of history.

A day like any other

Although in 1946, Christmas Day, December 25, was designated as a national holiday in China, this happy situation was short-lived. In 1949, the holiday was changed to October 1, China’s National Day. So on December 25, people in China, as usual, will get up and go to work. Students and teachers will take up their books and go to school. Hotels, however, eager for the tourist trade, will be displaying Christmas decorations of all kinds. There will be no mangers, but a large Christmas tree ablaze with small white lights is likely to fill the center of the lobby. A huge Santa Claus may be found standing in the corner of the hotel dining room. There may even be Christmas music. This may give the impression that China knows what Christmas is all about, but in fact, most of China’s teeming millions are totally unaware of the meaning of the great feast of Christmas.

Attending the Services

The churches, nonetheless, will be filled to overflowing. Some will have difficulty getting into the church. It is not always easy, especially for non-Catholics, to get passed the ever vigilant guards at the church doors who have even been known to ask for proof of baptism when they see an unfamiliar face!

Still Chinese of all types, ages, personalities and religious persuasions will find their way to a Christian church on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day.

Among these thousands there will be many who are not Christians; some will be Buddhists or Taoists, or have no religious affiliation whatsoever. They will come for a variety of reasons and with diverse motivations. Some non-Christians may come out of curiosity to experience a “Western festival.” Others, who profess some kind of religion, may wish to experience a celebration of a different religion. Some may come to the church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because it is something to do. Most, of course, will come to worship the one who is love and who promised to bring peace to all people of good will.

Thousands of poor peasants will leave their farms and make their way to key church centers throughout the country arriving early on December 24. Some will walk for hours; some will arrive by bus and some will arrive in junks or similar vessels. They will eat and share sleeping quarters with others like them who have come from afar to greet the new born Saviour. They will no doubt, have to stand in long queues, endure the cold and even possibly the snow, from morning until the doors open for the service at 7:00 p.m. It is certain that every seat will be taken. The side aisles and middle aisle will be crowded with people. Those who are lucky and in one of the major churches like the Beitang or the Nantang in Beijing or St. Ignatius in Shanghai, may not be able to see the altar directly, but they perhaps will be able to see the service through closed-circuit television. To be sure, when the bishop or priest ascends to the altar, the whole church will resound with joyous hymns and carols sung with a depth of faith seldom experienced in most Western churches, even at Christmas.

The elderly remember

China’s “old” Catholics may come to the manger crib and Mass with childhood memories of former days, when Christmas was a time of expectation, a time of gathering the family in an atmosphere of freedom, love and joy. They may also come with memories of those dark days of the Cultural Revolution when young people members of the Red Guards rampaged through the churches to bring down the crucifixes, statues and other signs of religion in an effort to eliminate the “four olds” (ideology, thought, habits and customs), when Christmas celebrations were totally forbidden, when Christians didn’t dare even to whisper a Christmas greeting within the intimacy of the family for fear of being betrayed and brought out publicly for ridicule, and possibly something worse. Some may come to give thanks for the modicum of religious freedom they now enjoy.

Freedom for all

Although China has come a long way since those chaotic years, not all Christian worshippers are completely free to worship openly. The services of the members of unregistered churches in 2003 will still be held in secret, in some small designated space with everyone present threatened with the possibility of punishment if they are discovered. China still has miles to go before all believers feel comfortable and at ease in manifesting their religious beliefs openly.

Tremendous changes

According to a professional survey, there are today in China over 100 million religious believers. Most of these adherents are Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics or Protestants. During the Cultural Revolution, the only place of worship was the Nantang and it was essentially for foreign diplomats. China today has more than 85,000 places for religious worship and religious professionals, including priests, Imams and Buddhist abbots, number over 300,000.

Some believe with China’s phenomenal pace of economic development, and materialism making inroads into people’s mind, heart and soul, interest in religion will lessen, values will change. Yet, China can boast of a steady stream of converts to all religious persuasions. A noted London-based China scholar, Edmond Tang, says, “It is my conviction that never before in recent Chinese history since the time of Matteo Ricci, has Chinese society been as open to Christianity as today.” A proof of that statement is that many of the new converts to Christianity are university students. A few years ago, Christian churches seemed to be mostly for the elderly, people who had suffered through nearly 30 years of religious persecutions. Many of the new converts today are young people, disillusioned with Communism. They are searching for the meaning of life and trying to fill the vacuum left by years of government policies imposed on the people to persuade them to accept atheism as fundamental for a true Communist.

Besides the rejection of Communism by many young people, there is a significant group of academics who, while not joining a specific Christian religious denomination, have discovered Christ through the study of Christianity and the Scriptures and are persuaded that the teachings of Christ can play a positive role in shaping a culture that is pluralistic. They believe that Christianity can help mould China into a spiritual and ethical society, and be an example for the modern world.

For Christians in China as for all Christians throughout the world, December 25 is a very special day. There is something about this particular festival that attracts people of all ages, but especially children. Perhaps Christmas touches the child in all of us who remember that God came to earth as a little child, and who said, “Let little children come to me…” (Mk. 10:14), and “Unless you become as one of these, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 18:3).