So here I am, eggnog latte in hand, seated in one of the ubiquitous branches of an internationally branded coffee chain. The city is not important. This could be Hong Kong or Beijing, New York or London. The festive holiday decor would be the same anywhere, along with the exhortations to "Create Wonder" and "Share Joy" stenciled on the front window.
Christmas is a global holiday, and it looks pretty much the same wherever one goes is in the world. Including China. Once banned as a sign of bourgeois decadence, Christmas has made a roaring comeback in the Middle Kingdom.
A recent article in the official English daily Global Times looked at why China celebrates Christmas. Not surprisingly, the writer highlighted the vast amount of economic activity generated by the holiday. Christmas in China, like anywhere else, is good for business. It puts people in a mood to spend money, gives them plenty of things to spend it on, and rewards the spending with the good feelings that come with giving and receiving gifts.
But that's not all. Here's the remarkable part of the story: The writer also interviewed some merrymakers on the street who were not just lugging home bags of newly purchased merchandise or out partying with friends. These were Christians, handing out invitations to a different kind of Christmas party, a "Christmas Good News Party" held at their church. In the words of the writer, "While for many Chinese Christmas is a time for shopping and revelry, not everyone has decided to immerse themselves in the carnival of consumerism, but are instead seeking to restore its original meaning."
According to the Gospel Times article, "With the rapid development of Christianity in China over the past 20 years, especially with the new phenomenon of worship services held in houses, office buildings and commercial spaces emerging in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and economically developed eastern coastal cities, more and more Chinese people are, for the first time, walking into churches for Christmas."
Long lines form outside China's officially registered churches, where Christmas celebrations attract thousands who would not likely otherwise attend church. Meanwhile, the unregistered gatherings that have proliferated in Chinese cities open their doors to curious participants or, in some cases, even rent hotel ballrooms in order to accommodate the crowds.
The Global Times article continues, "inviting non-Christians to churches during traditional Christian festivals has become a growing phenomenon in many emerging house churches in Chinese cities in recent years. The church will usually begin preparing the event months in advance and actively invite non-Christians to spend time together and understand the true meaning of Christmas."
China's Christians may, like believers in other countries, bemoan the commercialism that has come to characterize Christmas as a global holiday. Yet the legitimization of Christmas in China has created a natural platform to share the hope they have not only at Christmas but throughout the year.
Image credit: The Washington Post
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio