Christmas in China

In the second part of our series on Christmas celebrations in countries that aren't predominately Christian, we look at predominately Buddhist China. The up-and-coming economic power has a small community of Christians.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Yesterday, we began telling you about how Christmases marked in countries that are not predominantly Christian. We started the stops in Turkey and India. Today, we're going to go Japan and also to China, the country that exports toys and Christmas ornaments to the world.

In fact, yesterday, we heard Chinese toys in Turkey and India both. China has seen an upswing in interest in what is still considered a foreign holiday. Celebrating Christmas has largely become an occasion for increasingly affluent, young urban Chinese to shop and party and spend the night on the town.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

(Soundbite of church hymn)

ANTHONY KUHN: In recent years, Christmas mass at Beijing's four big Catholic cathedrals has become a mob scene. At the Romanesque Eastern Cathedral, also known as St. Joseph, only folks lucky enough to get a ticket get in after making their way past police cordons and metal detectors.

Officially, China has only about 10 million Protestants and 4 million Catholics. But the real numbers are much bigger if you count the underground churches, which shun government regulation.

I emerged from the mass after midnight, completely unprepared for the scene outside. It was somewhere between a Mardi Gras celebration and a lollapalooza festival.

Wang Fu Jing Street where the church is located was packed with teens and 20-somethings, wearing Santa Claus hats, moose antlers and strangely demonic little red horns.

Even Beijingers used to seeing big crowds in the city of 18 million people were stunned at the turnout.

Mr. FAN RAE (Student): (Through translator) I was wrong with this place.

KUHN: Twenty-year-old Fan Rae(ph) is a student at the Chinese Conservatory of Music.

Mr. RAE: (Through translator) Christmas is a phenomenon in Beijing and all of China. Now everybody likes to observe Christmas especially young people. We spend Chinese New Year with our families, but at Christmas, we go out to play with our friends.

KUHN: Wushu Huang(ph) is a 19-year-old, six-foot tall personal fitness trainer with dreadlocks halfway down his back. He and his girlfriend looked wistfully at the brightly lit cathedral.

Mr. WUSHU HUANG (Fitness Trainer): (Through translator) It gives you a nice feeling to watch. I imagine mass is a very solemn affair with a feeling of faith. Actually, not many people here really understand all of this. They're just here to watch all the crowds and excitement.

KUHN: In a sense, it's always Christmas in China. Everybody knows that Santa and his elves have outsourced their work to peasant girls toiling in the toy factories of southern Guangdong province. Chinese-made Christmas decorations are on sale year-round and some store or restaurant here is always belting out smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G's rendition of Christmas tunes in the dog days of summer.

Jiang Xing Shang(ph) is an amateur sax player who does weddings, birthdays and Christmas sales. He explains it this way.

Mr. JIANG JING SHANG (Sax Player): (Speaking in Chinese)

KUHN: There's always a Christmas tune on Kenny G albums, he says. Everybody here loves Kenny G, right? So they just play the whole album. They don't care if it's Christmas or not.

With his white beard and pony tail, Jiang looks pretty convincing in a Santa suit. Jiang has a chicken burger at a shopping mall KFC and then goes to the mall's atrium where he turns on his MP3 player and picks up his sax.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Of course, this is Beijing. In the vast countryside where most Chinese live, St. Nick doesn't really register on the radar. So China faces a long uphill battle in changing from a nation that exports stocking stuffers to one that consumes them.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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