I love Christmas at our Luzhou Protestant Church.
For 7 years in a row, I have attended our Christmas Eve services here but this Christmas had church members and leaders pulling out all the stops.
With the newly remodeled sanctuary came a desire to put to good use the new sound system and the other “must have” technological gadgets. Stage lights line the rafters on all sides with the ability to be lowered or raised at the push of a button. Another switch from the lighting board sends various chosen colors cascading over the congregation or the performers. A fog machine sprays mist over the sanctuary’s raised platform, creating the illusion of heavenly clouds swirling about. And a bubble machine can be used to fill the air with clusters of bubbles wafting high above our heads. No longer do we use a screen for the power point images but instead, an empty wall space has been painted white specifically for that purpose.
These additions were expected to bring a brighter and more joyful atmosphere to our usually dark and drafty sanctuary. And bring about a more spirited evening it did!
In a majority of Chinese churches, every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is a call for exuberant celebration. Chinese New Year is one that fills the TVs with bright, colorful programs of elaborate traditional dance numbers, choirs, big pop stars doing their thing, comedy skits, and showy, flashy numbers that keep everyone glued to the set. This custom of celebration has carried over into Chinese Christianity as well.
When we talk of Christmas Eve services in China, we are not talking about our American tradition of a quiet atmosphere with solemn church readings, gentle songs of Jesus’ birth, calming melodies being played by our most musical congregation members and a silent, contemplative feeling of religious holiness as we leave the service. Instead, a Chinese Christmas Eve service is a potpourri of various jubilant performances, usually with the midnight ringing in of Christmas being a rather boisterous affair. Congregation members are often not the only ones in attendance but many non-believers fill the pews as well, excited to watch a free show. They cram into the church, standing room only, come and go as they please and talk a lot to one another.
This custom of talking during performances is nothing new in China. It’s a hold-over from the days of traveling theatrical groups that went around to villages to entertain the poor. Much like Shakespeare’s time, the audience was a rowdy bunch and took this time to gossip with one another, comment on the actors, do business or just chit-chat about whatever.
In today’s China, we have the same sort of behavior from audience members who are not from more sophisticated, international circles, such as in Shanghai or Beijing. This is one reason why so many European and Western performers get annoyed and refuse to return to smaller areas of the country to give their concerts. They consider the inattentive audience rude and ungrateful. But for the average Chinese, a performance is a get-together with friends to have fun and enjoy each others’ company, not listen quietly to what’s going on in front of them.
Following this rule, you will get a picture of my Wednesday night at our Chinese Luzhou church.
I arrived early enough to get a good seat for our 7:30 p.m. start to our 3-hour program. At our church, the services are divided into 2 parts: Those for the public, who like the dances, songs and skits, and then the 11 p.m. to midnight, less active service which is more for those who are Christians.
At 7 p.m., we were already filling up with just a few spaces left. Everyone was talking and excited about the upcoming event. I was lucky enough to be in the second row, scrunched between those who were not Christians but attended the service every year for something to do.
To keep us entertained, the loudspeakers were blaring in English the Christmas favorites “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Jingle Bells” while the power point showed images of Christmas trees, dancing Santas and Mickey and Minnie Mouse chasing one another on ice-skates.
Our well-scheduled program listed over 35 numbers. The children’s Gospel Kindergarten, attached to the school, was doing 4 performances. Their teachers were doing sign-language to a Christian song. The adult and senior choirs, dressed in their spiffy new choir robes, were likewise singing. Also on the list was a liturgical dance by the young adults, the teens doing a modern-day dance to a new-age Christian song, a solo by our pastor’s friend (a well-known vocal teacher at a Chengdu college), testimonials from new believers, a short message from Pastor Liao’s husband (also in the clergy), a skit by the Luzhou Medical College’s Christian Nepalese and Indian students, the manger scene re-enactment, a Bible Quiz with T-shirts as prizes, and our long-standing church custom, the closing being a visit from a candy-throwing Santa Claus (always a favorite of the children).
I was also listed as singing with Pastor Liao, “Away In A Manger”, in both English and Chinese.
This kind of program takes a lot of coordination, time and energy on the part of all the participants. Anyone in the States putting together a church chili supper, children’s Christmas program, in-church caroling night, Christmas Eve service or hanging-of-the-greens evening for the sanctuary knows the amount of work that goes into such things. Imagine putting everything together in one evening (including feeding out-of-towners and guests) and then repeating it the entire Christmas Day, along with baptisms of over 50 entering the Christian faith. Pastors, active church members and leaders, choir members and music directors in China have little rest around this time of year. And yet, everyone looked vibrant and fresh during their songs, dances, testimonials and sketches. It was clear that Christ’s birth had great meaning to everyone who brought and shared their special gifts to the Lord on this holy night.
Granted, there were some rather greedy moments when control was somewhat lost. We had two difficulties with non-church members, especially unruly little kids, who stormed the stage to get candy from Santa. Later, we had the quiz T-shirt prizes snatched from the hands of those who had answered the questions correctly.
And, unfortunately, there was a total meltdown at the end of our lovely, calm second service when midnight approached. Someone on the Christmas Eve service committee thought giving out Bibles would be a nice way to celebrate a midnight “Welcome, Baby Jesus!” moment.
Midnight came with recorded church bells ringing. The choir members filed out onto the worship center, holding stacks of Bibles. And the crowd went wild, knocking over one another, shouting and grabbing for their precious free gifts.
I was among the Christmas battered as I happened to be in the first rows.
Over 50 Bibles disappeared in a matter of seconds with the panicked choir members tossing them into the air and running for their lives.
Was anyone appalled? Was anyone hurt?
Not at all. This was just part of the fun of Christmas at church. Everyone was laughing, helping those knocked to the floor to their feet, and congratulating their neighbors on their lucky snatch-and-grab.
All those who stayed for the entire night felt very satisfied with the events of the evening and no one wanted to leave. Digital photo sessions with Santa in front of the outer-room Christmas trees were still going on when I left at 12:30. I also managed a photo with Pastor Liao, although she was extremely busy. My last image of Pastor that night was her seeing off guests, praying with church members and sending good wishes to her staff and sound people as they departed for home.
After a long evening of celebration, I paused for a moment to think about what I was witnessing in Pastor Liao. The role of a pastor never ceases, even after the final “Amen!” is spoken in the service. Those who lead our Christian churches in this world always deserve a special place in our prayers, not only for Christmas but on a daily basis. They are truly an inspiration and a strong witness of what Christianity is all about.
And on that note, I wish you all “Ping An!” (Peace) from China for Christmas 2008.