Christmas in Beijing: an apple for peace, the crib “in the heart”

Two priests, Fr George from an underground community, and Fr Aloysius, from an official community, describe how China is preparing for the Christian festivity. Although there are some bans and prohibitions, the Christmas atmosphere – however commercialised – has invaded the country’s cities. Yet, the true meaning of the celebration is found only in the church. Thousands of people fill Beijing churches.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Giving an apple for Christmas has become popular among Beijing's Christians, so much so that parishes give one to everyone who comes to midnight mass. Why? Because in Chinese apple and peace sound very much alike for they contain the element “ping”.

Streets, shops, and shopping malls are full of Christmas signs. In churches, the solemnity is prepared with songs, decorations, cribs, but above all by building "the crib in the heart".

These are some of the things that two priests, Fr George, from an underground community, and Fr Aloysius, from an official community, have sent to AsiaNews. Here's what they wrote.

Fr George

Our people celebrate the birth of Jesus in different ways. We prepare the crib, decorate the church, and organise musical moments and shows. During this period, we also engage in welfare and charitable activities with a dinner on Christmas Eve and many other things.

The life of faith is concentrated above all in the liturgical celebration. At the beginning of Advent, priests must prepare well every step so that the hearts of the faithful can reach the birth of Jesus.

For the liturgical aspect, the crib is prepared to represent carefully the birth of Jesus. More liturgical information is provided to the faithful so that everyone is ready to walk into the new liturgical year together with the Holy Church.

We emphasise daily meditation a lot. The word of God helps us to follow better the way of the Lord. We must underline the importance of the time of Advent, carefully preparing the homily and preaching faithfully to all the faithful. Without a spiritual life and an open heart, all other Christmas activities appear empty and superficial.

We must bear in mind the importance of the Sacrament of reconciliation and priests must be able to offer the laity enough time to receive it. In such cases, it is advisable to invite some priests from neighbouring parishes to meet the needs of the faithful.

Preparing the crib is not the exclusive work of the parish priest or the nuns. I believe it is a good opportunity to invite lay people to collaborate. Moreover, the crib must be simple bearing in mind the poverty and humility of Our Lord. Through humble repentance, hard sacrifice, prayer and dedication, we can build our crib in the heart.

Love is not limited to words alone, but manifests itself through actions. At Christmas, we pay more attention to the last and the poor, reserving the best places in the celebrations for them, so that they feel more the love of the Lord near the crib and the altar. For the sick, I believe that the best gift is to visit them and bring them the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

With much advance we prepare the group of masters of ceremony and the choir. An ordered and solemn liturgy, accompanied by music and songs, helps the faithful to enter more in an atmosphere of thanksgiving and in the mystery of faith on Christmas Eve.

After we receive the Pope's Message (the Urbi et Orbi Message on Christmas Day), we share it with lay leaders. But it is important for priests to savour it well first, in a personal way.

At the time of Jesus, there were so many hostels in Jerusalem, but there was no room for the Child. I recently read that Christmas is boycotted in some parts of China. After 2,000 years, there is still so much hostility towards Jesus in many parts of the world.

I remember that a few years ago we prepared everything for Christmas, but they banned us from celebrating the afternoon of the day before. Since we could not celebrate Christmas Eve Mass, only 30 people remained that night.

Christmas is upon us again. Will it be a Christmas of peace? The Child Jesus smiles from the manger and embraces all the peoples of the world. He is the King of Peace.

Fr Aloysius

In December in Beijing, shops, restaurants, bakeries, and shopping malls are always decked out with plenty of Christmas decorations. There are not only advertising posters, but starting from mid-December, even salespeople wear Santa Claus’s red hood.

Last night, I went to a clothing store. I saw that, in front of the shop, there was a small but cute stuffed reindeer. To celebrate Christmas, there are lights and Christmas trees everywhere, in the squares, in front of buildings, and sometimes even in residential areas.

Slowly, I realised that Christmas today does not represent an exclusively Christian festivity, but it has become increasingly popular and commercial. Alongside this growing phenomenon, there are counterexamples. For instance, several schools and universities have banned all kinds of Christmas celebrations.

The city is immersed in the Christmas atmosphere: Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Christmas music, etc. But for Christians, the true meaning of Christmas is found only in the Church. Every year in Beijing, hundreds, thousands of people take part in the Christmas Mass.

Local churches try to celebrate as many masses as possible and hand out admission ticket in advance for free. Unfortunately, due to the crowds and the limited size of the churches, it is sometimes difficult to meet the needs of every individual member.

In particular this year, after some fires in the city, the churches will be even more strictly controlled.

Gift giving at Christmas is part of the symbols of this festive day. Is there any special gift in China? Yes: giving an apple.

In Chinese, homophony often affects communication. On Christmas Eve, an apple is given because the word apple (ping guo) sounds like the word peace (he ping). Placed inside in a colourful box, with a greeting card, the apple has now become a typical Christian gift in China. Anyone who goes to church might get one.

The joy of Chinese Catholics also lies in the two Masses on Christmas Eve: one is celebrated in the late afternoon, the other towards 11.30 in the evening.

During the three or four hours between the two Masses, several activities are often organised: a vigil with the Taizé prayer, or a Christmas concert. Thanks to dances, songs and many other shows, the celebration reaches its highpoint.