Chinese Christians honor ancestors at Easter

The traditional Qingming festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, coincided with Easter Sunday this year

UCA News reporter

Updated: April 08, 2021 04:00 AM GMT

Students place flowers

Students place flowers as they pay their respects to revolutionary martyrs at a cemetery ahead of the annual Qingming festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, in Hefei in eastern China’s Anhui province on April 2. (Photo: AFP)

As the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday approached, parishioners of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Xiantao city in China’s Hebei province were alarmed by the sounds of fireworks and firecrackers.

Xiantao, some 100 kilometers from provincial capital Wuhan, where the first human infections from the deadly novel coronavirus were detected in late 2019, was mostly lifeless at Easter last year due to a strict lockdown to stem the invisible enemy that has claimed some three million lives globally.

Authorities gradually lifted restrictions following the decline of new cases and deaths across China, while nations in most parts of the world continue to grapple with the contagion.

Life in many parts of China has returned to normal and so Christians flocked to churches in droves to celebrate Holy Week leading to Easter Sunday. 

Many Christians in Xiantao joined in setting off fireworks and firecrackers before joining the Easter Vigil in the church, though their actions had nothing to do with Easter. They were related to the traditional Qingming festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, that coincided with Easter Sunday this year.

In Chinese culture, the Qingming festival is a memorial celebration to honor ancestors. It is believed to be more than 2,000 years old and is observed by Han Chinese people across mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

This year about 1.5 million Chinese traveled by air for the three-day holiday for the festival that started on April 3, reported the South China Morning Post.

Ahead of the festival, families clean, sweep and decorate graves and gather for prayers and pay respect to their ancestors by making ritual offerings including flowers and homemade dishes. Firecrackers are blasted to mark the end of darkness and return of liveliness while casting away evil spirits.

In Xiantao, Christians combined the spirit of Easter with reverence to ancestors, reported Independent Catholic News.

“One year after the shock of China being hit by the pandemic, the coincidental overlap of Tomb Sweeping Day and Easter Sunday seemed to carry its own meaning. People of various traditions were celebrating on the same weekend in China, a remembering of special people and important events in previous times, all combined with the celebration of how such remembering leads to new life in our own time,” it commented.

Two priests who oversee the parish had to balance their commitments to people during the weekend as they promised to visit and bless tombs in nearby cemeteries and also needed to attend the Easter Vigil.

The area experienced heavy rain for two days that luckily ceased on the day of the Easter Vigil.

On Holy Saturday, the church was full to capacity and the faithful lit their candles with the flame from a large Paschal candle before pronouncing their baptismal vows. As the liturgy ended, they collected holy water in bottles and containers from large vessels placed in the church.

In other parts of China, Catholics expressed great religious fervor as they attended churches for Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Masses.

In Shanghai, an economic hub and a Catholic stronghold, thousands of Catholics joined processions wearing face masks and holding candles.

In Macau, a former Portuguese colony and now a Chinese-ruled territory, Catholics of Chinese and Portuguese descent joined Easter celebrations in churches while maintaining health guidelines.

In his Easter message, Bishop Stephen Lee of Macau greeted the faithful at Easter and reminded Catholics to be more committed to their families and communities in the Vatican-designated Year of the Family.

“The experience of Covid-19 has brought us to reflect on the precious value of life, highlighting the central role of the family in the domestic church and demonstrating the importance of community bonding between families,” Bishop Lee said.

China ended diplomatic relations with the Vatican at the start of communist rule in 1949. The country has more than 100 dioceses and archdioceses but does not have a Vatican-recognized bishops’ conference and an official Catholic directory.

In September 2018, the Vatican and China reached a secretive deal over the appointment of bishops following decades of unease between the state-approved “open” church community and “underground” church community that pledges allegiance to the Vatican.

The Holy Spirit Study Centre of Hong Kong Diocese estimates that China has some 12 million Catholics, including “unregistered” Catholics who reject the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.