Shanghai’s Christmas Tourists

The Church

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:

> 奔波的一天最终归于平静~第二个教堂平安夜,徐家汇天主教堂真的很美,典型的哥特建筑,宏伟壮观,空灵的圣歌,神圣的仪式…就是人太多,挤死了~信仰果真是一种强大的力量。跟着做弥撒时神父在我头上点了几下,没有给我圣体吃,而那些基督徒们在咀嚼圣体时怀着怎样一颗敬畏感动的心~安~

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!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Sounds like a mess! I guess in big foreigner/tourist-filled cities like Shanghai that just comes with the territory.

    I went to a Christmas Day service at the little Catholic church here in Liuzhou, Guangxi. My friend and I were the only foreigners there and it was nice from a “researching China” perspective to attend a service that wasn’t particularly geared toward anyone but the faithful regulars (though after the mass was over they did spot us and quickly did an unofficial round of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”). If anything, it was everyone but us who were taking pictures and videos of the service with their cellphones!

    Just wanted to say that I think it can be a neat experience going to a Chinese Christmas mass, but maybe it works better in the smaller cities.

  2. John, I can’t hold anymore (HOLD不住). We’re living with you in same area, seeing same things everyday around us. I talk about it with my friends and next day I read it in your blog. WTF! I’m not maniac, but sometimes I see you on the street, close to St. John’s compound or Familymart… You’re following me! Ha-ha.

    And about churches, we talked about “Christmas tourists” in latest episode of “Laowaicast” and now I read it in your blog….

    Aaaaaa. Somebody kill me.

  3. Roman Tronenko Says: December 29, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Great article. Thanks.

    It reminded me of one situation: when I was in Guangzhou in one Buddhist temple, couple of my (rather atheistic) chinese friends started to bowing (worshiping?) in the same way local monks do it.

    Then they started to force me to do the same thing, but I tried to explain them what I am of different religion, I respect this temple, for me it is not a joke and I am not going to do that.
    But they told me what if I refuse, then I (kind of) show disrespect, not a respect. WTF???

    That is just an example.

  4. Very insightful post. Have you written this up in Chinese and put it out there on the Chinese Internets yet?

    As a Jew, it was a completely different experience going to synagogue in Shanghai. When I went (in 2006), synagogues were prohibited by the Chinese government from letting Chinese citizens attend any events. According to the Rabbi, the thinking was that since there are no Chinese Jews (which is not true) and since prosthelytizing is illegal in China, there was therefore no purpose for Chinese nationals to go to a synagogue. (That Judaism prohibits prosthelytizing to gentiles was apparently completely peripheral).

    I went for Rosh Hashannah services and the ensuing meal in which consisted of the most diverse group of Jews I’ve ever seen assembled in one place. There were Jews from the US, England, Argentina, Eastern Europe, South Africa, and half the Israeli consulate staff, and representatives from Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and Chasidic movements….and due to the rule, no tourists. There were good discussions, activities, no interruptions or picture taking, and a real sense of a Jewish community, something which generally isn’t too easy to come by in the Middle Kingdom. In short, Shanghai was one of the best synagogue experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

    At the time, I was thinking it was kind of a shame that the law prohibiting Chinese attendance was in effect because I knew several Chinese people who were authentically curious what Jews did behind the closed doors. But after reading your post, it got me thinking maybe it’s better that Chinese aren’t allowed. (And believe me, as interested as Chinese people are in Christmas, they are even more curious about Jews.)

    It’s really a shame that Catholic mass has become such a circus, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. Manners often develop over time with particular innovations and institutions, and when a new institution pops up, sometimes it takes time for the appropriate behavioral norms to coalesce. That being said, I’m sure there are also many Chinese people who were as disgusted as you were. I’d be curious if experiences are different at churches in smaller cities and rural settings or if it’s the same old bonanza.

    I can’t imagine gleaning much meaning out of a service as you described it, so maybe some form of regulation is in order. Maybe you could voice a complaint with somebody at the Archdiocese, because I’m sure you’re not the only one bothered by this. And hey, if you ever need a non-touristy Western religion fix, I’ll take you to synagogue next time I’m in Shanghai…although you might have to leave the wife at home.

    • Ross,

      No, I haven’t posted this in Chinese. Who has the time??

      Yeah, I’m sure the Chinese are very interested in Judaism, but, not to be rude, isn’t a lot of it fueled by the “Jews have all kinds of secrets about how to make money” stereotype?

      Anyway, you’re right, I should probably make a formal complaint, but I also recognize that it’s the one night of the year when the mass has a chance of reaching out to non-believers. Personally, I think it would make more sense to have fewer Christmas Eve masses and do a different kind of program. I think I’ll just stick to Christmas Day mass from now on.

  5. It seems to be that Christmas Eve is celebrated with more enthusiasm than is Christmas Day. It was the same over-crowded side-show at the local Church here on Chong Ming. We were looking for a nice quiet time, practicing a few hymns in Chongminghua, but ended up witnessing a wedding (On.Christmas.Eve) and then the gates of Heaven (or someplace) opened up and we were packed like no Metro #1 carriage I’ve ever been in. Once I’m elected Pope, two things: Eucharist By Rows When Called, and No Blessings at Communion Time. But that might take a while. Merry Christmas, everybody.

  6. Hey John,

    I couldn’t tell from your article for sure but it sounded like you don’t regularly attend (forgive me if I’m wrong). If that’s the case, would you consider yourself one of the “Christmas tourists?” A more respectful one, but one nonetheless?

    You mentioned you would not be attending next year’s Christmas mass, and it seemed that was because you were frustrated by the masses of Christmas tourists, not because you wanted to be one less tourist in the mix but I’m wondering if that’s part of it too.

    Will you attend at some other point in the year?

    • Nicki,

      No, I don’t consider myself a Christmas tourist, because (1) I’m there for the mass, not the novelty, and (2) I do go pretty regularly. (I won’t claim I’ve never missed…)

      I said I won’t be going to Christmas Eve mass again. Christmas Day mass is fine.

  7. “It also makes me reflect on modern foreigners’ behavior in Buddhist temples (how bad are we?),”

    Well, personally I’ve always made a rule of not taking photos inside a place of worship and doing my utmost to stay out of the way of worshippers (e.g. in a Buddhist or Taoist temple, make sure nobody is praying before I walk between them and the altar; don’t try to enter the inner sanctum of a mosque), but yes, I’ve seen plenty of people, Chinese and otherwise, treating it all as Disneyland.

    It’s been a while since I had an active Catholic friend or colleague currently in Beijing asking about Christmas, but I seem to remember Beijing’s cathedrals making midnight mass entry by pre-booked ticket. It’s unfortunate, but seems like the best approach under the circumstances. I’ve been invited to midnight mass, but not only am I too lazy for midnight mass, I feel that if they have to issue limited tickets to control the crowds, my protestant arse is not going to steal a seat from a faithful Catholic, and certainly not on one of the most important dates in the calendar.

    Mr Ross’ comment is interesting, and I do think that in certain respect life for foreigners whose religious tradition is not legally recognised in China must be quite easy in many ways – with Ben’s experience of Rosh Hashanah being an excellent example. Christianity is recognised in China, but only in its Protestant and Catholic forms. What about those from Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions? Is any special dispensation made for Harbin’s Russian Orthodox churches? Or are Eastern and Oriental Orthodox believers restricted to the foreigners (and Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan passport holders) only services like Ben attended? There are also Protestant, Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian foreigner-only churches in China for those who either want services in their native language or at least a language they understand better than Chinese or who choose not to involve themselves with the officially recognised Protestant church. Are there such churches for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox?

  8. Midnight mass has become a circus in western countries too. Worth watching the latest (Christmas) episode ( of the BBC comedy series Rev for an insight into the kind of congregations priests face at Christmas services in London.

    See also:

  9. Jennyfotos Says: January 2, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Apart from using cameras/camcorders, Catholic midnight mass in the UK is just as over-busy and sadly crowded with drunks straight from the pub. Being a Catholic myself, I would normally miss that mass, and true….. some priests try to take advantage of parts of the congregation not practicing christians by taking even longer than normal and thus pushing people away by taking so much longer than a normal mass.

  10. Aw, it’s unfortunate how your Christmas mass turned out here in Shanghai! Hopefully the situation is not as bad this year. Maybe the non-Catholic Christmas services go better, I’ll have to find out. Here is an updated 2012 list on Christmas services in Shanghai, hope it’s helpful:

    All the best,

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