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Christmas in China

Dave was in China the week after Thanksgiving.

It turns out they celebrate Christmas there.

Celebrating Christmas has been a growing trend in China. For younger people, it's a festive day to go shopping, catch up with friends, and party. Shopping malls decorate to show they are keeping up with the international trend. Shelves of pre-bagged small gifts show up.

According to a 2014 study, almost 74% of Chinese are non-religious or observe a Chinese folk religion. Only 2.5% practice Christianity. In China, that's still 35 million people. But those are the official numbers. Unofficially there could be 93-115 million Protestants, with most of them involved in underground house churches.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations:

Social scientists have observed the rise of a spiritual vacuum, following decades of unprecedented economic growth. Modern China has emerged as a wealthier and more educated society with renewed interest in religion. Consequently, experts say that as the [Chinese Community Party’s] ideology loses public traction, Christian churches, official and unofficial, appear to be filling some of this void. Believers are not only searching for meaning in their own lives but also for the future of their country as China adapts to a rapidly changing economy and society. Protestantism “appeals to Chinese traditions of ritual and community,” according to French Jesuit and China scholar Benoit Vermander. Moreover, experts say Chinese Christians are also attracted to the faith’s sense of fellowship, comprehensive moral system, organized structure, and solidarity as part of an international movement. Additionally, harsh repression of more popular traditional Chinese religions —especially during the Cultural Revolution—reduced the influence of Buddhism and Taoism and opened the door for greater Christian expansion.

Christians in China are predominantly Protestant, drawn to the religion’s emphasis on egalitarianism and spiritual community within the church, says [Fenggang Yang, of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society]. The sense of fellowship among Chinese Christians is attractive compared to the hierarchal structures of other religious and social organizations, Yang adds. It is also possible that more Chinese may choose Christianity over other faiths, such as Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, or Falun Gong, because Christianity is more tolerated and is potentially a safer option in China, says Freedom House’s [Sara] Cook. (Christianity in China, updated 10/11/18)

Christians in China have not always been treated well. For centuries Catholic missionaries were banished from the country in an attempt to banish foreign influences. At the end of World War II, the ruling Chinese Communist Party was hostile to religion in general but was willing to let churches continue as long as they submitted to the direction of the Chinese state. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), religion was banned in China and churches went underground. During this time believers were imprisoned and tortured. Bibles were destroyed, churches were looted. In 1992 a move was started to shut down the underground churches, but it has been sporadic, and there is some religious liberty in certain regions of China.

There has been a recent crackdown by Chinese leaders on religious bodies. Dozens of Christians were arrested recently. Thousands of Uighur Muslims have been in re-education camps for years.

So it's Christmas in China.

Hotels have set up trees, saxophone-playing Santa robots, signs, gift shelves. But Christmas in China is decidedly not religious. It's Santa, and "Frozen," and gift giving. It's not a holiday. Children will bring their teachers gifts of fruit on the 24th, but they'll be back at school on the 25th. The Chinese holiday season doesn't happen until January/February with the Chinese New Year.

And just to remind folks that Christmas in China is not a religious day, one town near Beijing this year has banned Christmas. Vendors can't sell Christmas trees, Christmas socks or Christmas decorations. Banners and billboards are being taken down. One news article noted that it might not be an anti-religious move, but rather an attempt to win a prestigious Chinese award as a "Civilised City."

All of this is a reminder to me that Christmas is not a holiday.

It's a Holy Day.

I wish all of you a Joyous Christmas.

- Ann Iona Warner

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