“Silent Night” is probably the most loved of all Christmas carols in China, at least among those who know Christmas carols. In this society, “sweet” music tends to be favored by the masses and “Silent Night” is definitely in the “sweet” music category.
In Chinese, it is called “平安夜” (“Ping An Ye,” “Peaceful and Calm Night”). Somehow, in the past few years, Christmas Eve has come to be known as the Silent Night—Ping An Ye.
I first heard Christmas Eve referred to as the Silent Night back in 1997 when my sister and her family were spending Christmas with me in Changchun. At that time, Christmas was just beginning to seep into the consciousness of urban Chinese. A few stores sold trees, there were Santas here and there, but that was about it. I had taken my three teenage nieces to a local beauty parlor for a hair wash/massage—one of the cultural experiences on the list for them.
So there we were, on Christmas Eve in China’s northeast, getting our hair washed. The girls loved it, and the workers in the beauty parlor were thrilled to have three gorgeous foreign girls to “work on.” We chatted about lots of things, then one worker suddenly said, “Hey it’s the Silent Night! What do you usually do in America on the Silent Night?” We explained to them that it was normally a quiet night (ping-an, in fact), a time when family and friends are home together. I assured them that going out to get our hair washed was definitely not an American Christmas Eve custom.
Over the next couple of decades Christmas became a huge event in China, albeit one without any meaning beyond consumption. In Beijing, Christmas Eve saw some of the worst traffic of the year and restaurants were full of couples out for romantic evenings—St. Nicholas meets St. Valentine. With China having become, in essence, a consumer society, they were not about to miss out on the ultimate consumer event of the year.
One thing missing, of course, was any sign or mention of the baby Jesus.
Local churches stepped in to fill that gap by holding special Christmas Eve services and parties as evangelistic outreach. The popularity of Christmas often drew curious crowds. At one church in Beijing, on Christmas Eve in 2009, I saw a line of people waiting to get in that stretched down the street and around the corner. They were waiting in line to get into one of the five services schedule for every hour between 5 and 11 pm. When the sanctuary was full, they would close the gates to the church and those still in line would have to wait until the next service. I talked to one lady in line and she told me she’d already been in line for an hour and a half—in the bitter cold.
I had the opportunity to be in Beijing earlier this month, and I was struck by the noticeable absence of Christmas decorations around the city, except in those areas that cater to the expat communities. The political environment has shifted such that public displays of Christmas are frowned upon. I wondered what Christmas Eve will be like this year.
But people I spoke with in churches said that they still intend to hold special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that they will continue to use these services to share the message of the real meaning of Christmas.
They will, undoubtedly, sing Silent Night.
Wherever you are this Christmas, we at ChinaSource wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas!
Image Credit: MC Kline.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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