This year I attended the 8pm Christmas Eve mass at the St. Ignatius cathedral in Xujiahui, Shanghai. It reminded me why I normally don’t go to Christmas Eve masses in China. In short, it’s a zoo.
The reason is that Christmas Eve has become a popular holiday in Shanghai, although it’s mainly a date holiday. Traffic was horrible that evening, as couples all went out in search of a romantic winter evening. Many of them went to churches out of curiosity, to see how Christmas is celebrated there.
I imagine the “Christmas tourists” that wound up at Catholic churches were a little bored. Yes, there’s a choir singing Christmas music, but it’s still a Catholic mass, and not a Christmas program. (As I understand it, some other denominations do special Christmas programs to cater to the seasonal tourists.)
For the Catholic Church, it’s certainly a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the church has a rare opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience actively seeking out what it has to offer. (Christian churches are not allowed to actively evangelize in China, so if it’s done at all, it’s normally done quite subtly.) On the other hand, the Catholic Church is there for the faithful, and the Christmas tourists really are a bit of an obstacle to normal worship.
Some examples of how the Christmas tourist disrupt the mass:
- The tourists wander all throughout the church throughout the mass, often talking in loud voices
- The tourists take photos (with flash) and video all throughout the mass, often holding the device up high, distracting everyone
- The tourists take up good seats in a standing-room-only situation, but then try to leave the packed church after 20 minutes when they get bored
- The tourists outnumber the believers, so the priest tends to direct the sermon at them, capitalizing on the opportunity
- The tourists try to receive Holy Communion, even though the priest patiently and politely explains that it’s not for visitors, requiring the priest and eucharistic ministers to do a sort of mini-interrogation to anyone in the communion line that looks suspicious (and they’re surprisingly good at spotting the faking faithful!)
It’s the last one that bothers me the most. In China there’s a serious lack of respect for religion. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given China’s history, but it’s quite startling to be presented with the fact in this way. It also makes me reflect on modern foreigners’ behavior in Buddhist temples (how bad are we?), but I honestly can’t think of anything I’ve ever seen that feels as bad as trying to receive Holy Communion after being specifically asked not to (in one’s native tongue).
Here’s one tourist’s account (from Weibo), which offers a nice (more respectful) perspective:
Here’s a rough translation:
A busy day eventually ended peacefully… My second Christmas Eve at a church. The Xujiahui Catholic Church is really beautiful, with classic gothic architecture, really magnificent, lovely hymns, and a holy ceremony… But there were just too many people; it was super crowded. Faith is indeed a powerful force. Following along in the mass, the priest nodded at me several times, but didn’t give me the Eucharist to eat. But those Christians chewing on the Eucharist were filled with some kind of reverent emotion. Peace.
I assume the priest “nodding” at her was him giving her a blessing. Any non-Catholic can go up in the Communion line and get a blessing, but they’re supposed to cross their arms to signal that they’re not there to receive the Eucharist.
Anyway, lesson learned… next year I won’t be going on Christmas Eve again!