This building does not have heat. It does not have plumbing. It’s lucky to have windows. It has peeling paint. There were not enough seats. There were so many people that the doors wouldn’t close. Santa Claus was everywhere, including in the crèche with baby Jesus. But it was Christmas Eve mass in China, and what an incredible experience.
It. Was. PACKED. Fuller than any Christian church I’ve attended, and that includes the Christmas Eve mass I attended with my now-husband and his family a few years ago when we actually ended up with a second priest in the basement. In this case, there was no basement. In typical Chinese fashion, we all just crammed in. It was as full as or fuller than the various forms of public transportation I’ve taken here, which was surprising considering the difficulty we had in finding the place and then finding the service times. (Alas, this counts as another bit of “welcome to China,” it seems.)
At this point, I tip my hat to our landlord. Nick speaks English pretty well and is an overall great guy. (We won the landlord lottery here in China, honestly.) Regarding the church, though: Andy messaged him earlier on Christmas Eve to see if he knew any details about services for the holiday. Even though Chinese people don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, they are somewhat marginally aware of its history and most of its western trappings. Nick volunteered to go over to the church himself and inquire about the service times. We wouldn’t have imposed on him to do that, but he wanted to… so we let him and we got the information we needed. (Here we find another example of the Chinese going above and beyond expectations in terms of relationship and problem solving. More on this in a later post!)
It took us a little time to figure out where to go once we arrived, and after a little “sheeple” action (people acting like sheep and following everyone else in a herd) we were in. We ended up having to stand for the 2.5 hours we were there, but that didn’t really matter to us because we were in and we could see what was going on. The mass started and, fortunately for us, we know how the service goes in English, so it was fairly easy to follow along.
As someone who was raised in a Lutheran family, attended Catholic university, and has dated a devout Catholic for about ten years before marrying him, I understand the liturgy. What was fun, as a linguist, was listening for Chinese words I recognized in a new context-
-wo men 我们 (we/us), mei you 没有 (don’t have), er zi 儿子 (son), ai 爱 (love)–and hearing new Chinese words in a familiar context–tian zhu 天主 (God), a men 阿们 (amen), shang zhu 上住 (Lord), ping an 平安 (peace), ye su 耶稣 (Jesus), gan xie 感谢 (greatest thanks), and tian zuo 天坐 (heaven). I learned a lot of new Chinese just by being there.
I didn’t recognize the opening song, but when I heard the tune of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” I got really excited! They started with something that sounded akin to “gloooooooria in excelsis deo” so I joined in (even though I probably shouldn’t have, considering the state of my throat and sinuses…). But when they got to the verses, it was all in Chinese. I was completely flabbergasted. Stunned. And delighted. (See video below; link here if it doesn’t work: https://www.instagram.com/p/BObKr-RBvx0/) This happened again later with “The First Noel” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” (one of my favorites). I couldn’t help but hum along in English, knowing full well that I was the only person in the room uttering the English lyrics.
For the preparation of the gifts, even though we didn’t have seats, we were expected to kneel. On the hard, cold, slate floor. So we did. When else were we going to have an opportunity like this? It was humbling to note the reverence the parishioners had for this portion of the mass, considering the constant din of winter coats, children, and smartphones throughout the room for the rest of the service.
At communion, it was pretty close to a mosh pit. People push and shove in China. It’s not to be mean or aggressive. It’s to achieve their goal. Everything has the potential to be a full-contact sport. You just have to be ready for it and keep your knees bent a little so when you get throttled by a four year-old you don’t fall over. (Not that this has happened to me!) Because we were standing the whole time, it was a little like being in a rip tide in the ocean. We tried to stay in place, but invariably moved as the waves of people around us moved, ending up in a place pretty far from where we started.
We weren’t quite spectacles, but let’s just say people noticed us. First of all, I’m 6’0″ tall and we both have brown hair. We were standing the entire service, so it was pretty obvious we weren’t Asian… Some little children stared at us, so we would wave and say “Hello! Ni hao!” until they were satisfied. Some teenaged girl in the choir came up to me after a bit of discussion with who I presume is her father. She just wanted to say hello and find out where we were from. She said she wants to study in Australia. I told her that her English is very good. Then we talked about how to say Merry Christmas in Chinese.
Which, by the way, is 圣诞快乐！(sheng dan kuai le)
So merry Christmas, from us to you, family and friends, near and far!