Through the Narrow Gate: Celebrating Christmas in China

Araw, gritty wind swirls through the dark night as I lock my bike on the crowded sidewalk. Turning around, I step toward a cordoned-off area, behind which policemen, their hats pulled down and collars pulled up, bark at the jostling crowds, urging them to stop pushing and stand back. Several thousand people form a line snaking along the sidewalk, funneling down to one person at the narrow gate.

Passersby gape to see what could possibly be going on behind the gate. A visual clue for them is the wreath decked with a large red ribbon hanging on the fifteen-foot black gate. On both sides of the gate are boughs woven in the shape of crosses and outlined with white Christmas tree lights.

It’s the Christmas service at Beijing’s Gangwashi Protestant church, perhaps the church’s most important liturgical event of the year.

Christmas as Commerce

Christmas is not the most important holiday in China—that distinction is reserved for Chinese New Year. In fact, Christmas is not even a holiday in China. But it has become a gimmick for merchants to boost sales, something demonstrated by the vendor next door to the church who is wearing a pointed Santa hat with a long tassel and blinking red lights. He’s taking advantage of his proximity to the church to sell Christmas trinkets. As Chinese merchants discover Christmas’s commercial potential, more and more Christmas decorations are appearing in China’s cities.

Though the decorations are familiar, Christmas here has taken on Chinese characteristics. For most Chinese, celebrating Christmas means partying with friends. On Christmas Eve, rush hour extends late into the evening as traffic clogs the nightclub districts of Beijing. Young couples, arm-in-arm, many of the women carrying lush bouquets, jam the sidewalks. Hotels and nightclubs throw huge parties on Christmas Eve in their lavishly decorated ballrooms, charging entrance fees of between ten and twenty U.S. dollars. Music, dancing, food, and especially drink make up these Christmas Eve celebrations.

Commercial prospects aside, what accounts for this burgeoning Chinese interest in Christmas? The answer lies in the country’s rapid economic development over the last twenty-five years. Since modernization is seen as “Westernization,” many young Chinese are fascinated with all things Western. As the West’s most colorful and popular holiday, Christmas is of special interest. For many young Chinese, celebrating Christmas is chic.

Christmas as a Curiosity

Not all Chinese go to a nightclub or party on Christmas Eve, however. Thousands flock to church, as clearly evidenced by the large crowd gathered outside Beijing’s Gangwashi (pronounced gahng wah shur) church on this bitter cold night. Though young couples dot the crowd, there are many others too: older couples wearing dull blue “Mao suits” and children in bright red “Hello Kitty” parkas, Beijing’s urban professionals, peasants from the countryside, men and women of all ages and walks of life. All are waiting to pass through the narrow gate into the church.

Considering the long wait ahead, the crowd outside is remarkably orderly and patient. It’s not quite six-thirty, but every seat inside the church is already taken for the seven o’clock service. That means around eight hundred people are seated in the main sanctuary, with more than a thousand others packed into several adjacent halls and rooms to watch closed-circuit

television. Those waiting outside hope to squeeze through the narrow gate for the nine o’clock or even the ten-thirty service. If they don’t get in tonight, there may be room at one of the two services scheduled for Christmas Day. Altogether, as many as ten thousand people will pass through Beijing’s Gangwashi church during the Christmas holiday.

According to Zhang Yongqiang, an evangelist in his early thirties who is helping to lead the services this evening, “Probably less than half of those who come are Christians celebrating this holy night. The rest come for a wide variety of reasons, but mostly out of curiosity. They want to know the meaning of Christmas.”

Christmas as Gospel

Inside the sanctuary, a gray-brick structure built in 1925, an eager audience waits for the service to begin. The trimmings of Western Christmas are all on display. Over the doorways hang garlands. Giant wreaths with bold red bows adorn the walls. Poinsettias crowd the windowsills. In the front, to one side, is a twelve-foot artificial Christmas tree decked with heavy pinecones and crisscrossed with strings of dazzling colored lights. On the front wall hangs a hand-painted familiar scene: Baby Jesus is in Mary’s arms, surrounded by Joseph, the shepherds and Magi on bended knee, and various stable animals, with angels hovering in a starry sky. At the center of the front wall are four large Chinese characters. In shining gold, they boldly proclaim, yi ma nei li—Immanuel.

“God with us” is clearly the message at the heart of this service. In the half-hour before the service begins, a lay worker in her fifties guides the audience through a medley of Christmas hymns: “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” “Gloria in Excelsis,” “Silent Night.” She is helping many in the audience navigate these cherished hymns for the first time. Between songs, she explains the meaning of Christianity. “The Bible calls all people to believe,” she announces. “You must repent and believe.” She also repeatedly reminds those with cell phones to switch them off—to no avail, as cell phone trills and tremolos punctuate the entire service.

At promptly seven o’clock, the lights are dimmed and the piano begins to sound “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” All rise and turn to watch the choir, carrying candles, slowly descend to the front. Four young women dressed as angels in white wedding gowns lead the procession. As the choir members file to their places on the podium, the women light Advent candles on a table in front, while everyone sings, “O come, let us adore him.”

Once begun, the Christmas Eve service proceeds like countless others taking place around the world this night. Passage by passage, the age-old Christmas story is read from the gospel of Luke, interspersed with familiar hymns, traditional choir anthems, a child ensemble performing hand motions, and an unpolished but beautiful tenor solo in Latin of “Heaven Gives God’s Sustenance.” Though the music and message are so familiar to Western ears, judging from the radiant expression on the faces of those singing and leading worship, it’s difficult to imagine this as merely a foreign curiosity.

The joy of Christmas good news reaches a crescendo when the piano begins to play and the choir jumps up to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The congregation rises too, and after the choir fills the air with ringing Amens, the side doors of the sanctuary are swung open and brisk winter air cools the now-stuffy sanctuary. It’s just after eight o’clock, and the first Christmas Eve service is over. There are two more to go. The crowd slowly pushes through the back doors, down the steps, and once again squeezes through the narrow gate, one by one.

In front of the church, policemen are still barking at those crowding the cordoned-off area. As the last of the early-service crowd files out, the line snaking from the next block slowly shuffles forward, funneling down to a single person entering the narrow gate, each one eager to hear the old, old Christmas story—most for the first time.

The Gangwashi church is like many registered churches that take advantage of the interest in Christmas by pouring weeks of preparation into their Christmas services. This is the one time of the year that many will come into a church for the first time. Members hope and pray that this service may open the gates of the visitors’ hearts, interesting them enough to ask more questions and perhaps come back to learn more.

—ERB