Recovering the long lost Christmas memory
Director of Chinese Culture Research Center
Assistant Professor (Theological Studies)
As we celebrate one Christmas after another, it has gradually become a tired routine. Silent Night gospel meetings, potluck gatherings, the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, gifts…
These have been the same until December 2017, when all of a sudden, sub-district offices, universities, secondary and primary schools in many Mainland cities received a notification from the local Public Security Bureau, the Communist Youth League and other departments: “No Christmas atmosphere, decorations, items related to Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Santa hats or Christmas are allowed in schools and public areas. All activities related to Christmas should be cancelled.”1 Within a short period of time, we see some "patriots" celebrating their zealous loyalty for the nation, with all kinds of messages such as "Boycott Christmas! Chinese do not observe foreign festival!" and “Advocate Chinese culture and resist the worship of foreign countries" displayed by eye-catching propaganda vehicles and teams going through streets and alleys of the cities.
A City without Peace on Silent Night
This phenomenon may be considered part of the measures taken by the Chinese government in recent years to tighten the control of Christianity and remove Christian symbols from the public areas. Unsurprisingly, these basic actions have been used by ancient and modern authorities to repel Christianity over the years. However, if we take a deeper look between the lines, what’s been going on here could also be a thought-provoking phenomenon. As early as the 1920s, the nationalist wave triggered by the loss of rights and interests of Shandong at the Paris Peace Conference accused Christianity of being the "vanguard" of imperial aggression. Being encouraged by the Nationalist Party of China and the Communist Party, students rose to begin a series of non-Christian movements one after another since 1922. In December 1924, the Guangzhou branch of the non-Christian alliance designated Christmas week as a “non-Christian week”. In addition to parades, speeches and distribution of leaflets, students stormed churches on Christmas Eve to evict the church goers. That night, Guangzhou spent its Silent Night without peace. During summer of the following year, the National Federation of students passed the following resolution: “The Council defines the week before and after Christmas (December 25 of each year) as anti-Christian week (December 22-28). During this week, on the occasion of each solicitation for Christians, the Federation and the Student Union should call upon the masses to carry out various anti-Christian movements and print anti-Christian postcards to replace the use of Christmas cards.”2
Bringing Peace to the World, and Making It Uneasy
The non-Christian movement subsided temporarily in 1927 when the Nationalist Party of China and the Communist Party broke up openly. However, the Chinese churches did not stop responding. Through construction of indigenous theology and self-supporting movement, churches strove to make efforts to remove the label of "foreign religion". Putting these great impacts aside, if we are to look at Christmas itself, there seems to be some meaningful insights behind it. As a result of this experience, the church had the opportunity to return to the scene of the birth of Jesus, which was unsettling. According to the Gospel of Matthew, when Herod heard the news of the birth of the Messiah, who was born king of the Jews, "his heart was troubled, and the whole city of Jerusalem was troubled." (Matthew 2:2-3) Christmas was meant to bring peace to the world. And yet it also made the world uneasy. Peace and unease were not that far apart. Without a boycott of Christmas, Christians would have had a hard time remembering the truth – this paradox of unease.
The pendulum effect of time makes one accustomed to the inevitable ups and downs of the tumultuous world. By the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution, which smashed the remains of the old world, made Christmas inescapable from being seen as a taboo.
Interestingly, there is a science of the geography of human survival in other parts of the world. In Wenzhou, a city relatively far from the center of politics in Zhejiang province, layer upon layer of peaks and hills embraced some hidden Christians in the most dangerous times. They secretly remembered the birth of Jesus in the deep mountains.3 It was as if they found a serene manger for the baby amid the world of cold indifference and rejection. There were no Christmas dinners or Christmas trees, no Santa Claus and gifts, but the watchmen’s furtive behavior perfectly matched the humbleness of the baby.
In fact, decorations, Christmas trees, Santa Claus and Santa hats are not necessary for Christmas, and they actually cause us to easily forget the true meaning of Christmas. Looking at it this way, we should thank the authorities for filling the 2017 Christmas Eve with a spirit of violent killing: The actions of the government ended up creating a Christmas ambience that is closer to the books of Gospel. As a result, the church recovered a memory that had been lost for a considerable period of time. Most probably, we should also expect to experience the same Christmas atmosphere in Mainland in 2018.
- Qingyang Municipal Public Security Bureau of Gansu Province, “Notice on the prohibition of all activities related to Christmas,” December 21, 2017.
- Tang Xiaofeng, Wang Shuai, “Resolution of the National Federation of Students,” compilation of Important documents on the Non-Christian Movement during the Republic of China (in Chinese), (Beijing: Social Sciences Literature Press, 2015), p. 541.
- Shanghai writer Jiang Yuanlai wrote a screenplay Christmas Eve in Yandang Mountains based on historical facts. The screenplay was included in his book Everything begins with Somber Christ and No cannibalism - two historical poetry dramas from the depths of China (in Chinese), (Hong Kong: Typesetter Publishing, 2017).