17 December 2020, The Tablet

How Christmas incarnates Christ in China

by Michael Chambon, CNS

How Christmas incarnates Christ in China

A Christmas market in Beijing
CNS/Thomas Peter, Reuters

Once again, Chinese Christians and non-Christians are decorating their streets, shops and churches with Christmas decorations. The typical red hats, Santa faces and glittering trees are multiplying over the public sphere. Despite efforts by some Chinese authorities to limit the popularity of this supposedly Western festival, Christmas continues to overflow religious circles and to entertain a wide range of Chinese citizens.

In China, Christmas encapsulates many things. It is as much about peace, joy and romance as it is about consumerism, modernity and the West. Wild and polymorphous, its popularised forms escape from any state or clerical controls. Christmas has fallen into the public domain. Thus, year after year, a Chinese Christmas war continues to occur over its significance and meaning.

Yet, for Christian observers, one paradox must be highlighted. While many Chinese Catholics and Protestants claim that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, the materiality of their churches gives a more complex account. Although Catholic churches always set up a Nativity scene in their sanctuary, all Chinese churches host numerous Santas, blinking trees and jumping deer as well. In China, these not-so-Christian decorations are everywhere in Catholic and Protestant places of worship.

As I theorise in my new book, Making Christ Present in China, Christians cannot be reduced to their ephemeral words and ideas. Christians also are sensible bodies relying on material objects. They exist and act through a whole set of objects that allow and challenge them to do so. Their life and their statements of faith emerge from concrete bodies fed by distinct cuisines and wrapped into real clothes.

In the case of Christmas ornaments, Christians and their objects say more than a mere statement of faith about Jesus. If the not-so-Christian decorations quietly irrigate the discourses of devoted Christians, they also reveal three important things.

First, their very presence reminds us that Christmas is a thick and rich material phenomenon that roots our senses into culturally informed practices. In 21st-century China, Christmas is part of the Chinese culture. Through a set of specific colours, smells and sounds, Jesus cohabits with smiling Santa, white sleds and red balls. Thus, Chinese Christmas is not first encountered as an idea or a creed. It is a material experience and bodily initiation introducing everyone to something rather undetermined and mix in nature.

Second, Chinese Christians – Catholics and Protestants – are not so distant from their fellow citizens. The secular decorations of their churches speak of the contemporary culture that Chinese Christians share with non-Christians. Throughout this material continuum, Chinese churches and capitalist malls speak to each other. The apparent messiness of Chinese Christian decorations might not be what religious and political leaders would like. They may transgress top-down categorisations and modern oppositions between religious and secular spaces. Chinese Christians do not stand in a pure and pious bubble apart from their sociocultural environment. Polysemic Santa is welcomed at their churches just like Merry Christmas is shared by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

Third, these eclectic decorations continue to rejoice, stimulate and question those who contemplate them. With them and because of them, Christian sanctuaries remain polymorphic and open to a variety of sensibilities. Their Chinese Christmas cannot be reduced to a monolithic message. It exceeds any reassuring discourses, knowledge and unidimensional truth. In other words, those objects enlarge the scope of the sanctuary. With Santa and his deer, Christian places of worship are not an exclusivist cult with narrow teachings owned by a pastor; they remain a space of questioning hospitality. “Who do you say I am?”

Therefore, before these long chains of objects that allow us to physically access a taste of Christmas without reducing it to a single and abstract message, one may question discourses against materialism. In many circles, either Catholic or Protestant, rather undefined materialism is easily presented as evil. It is as if caring for the materiality of our existences would deny our filial relation to the heavenly Father. Discourses against materialism, however, take the risk to look down upon the real world that God has not only created but also assumed in his intimate nature. The flesh of Christ is not a mere decoration or a medium: It is him, the true image of God.

In my book, I show that the revelation of Christ becomes tangible through the continuous dialogue that people manage with material objects. Their relation to the Christian God is not an abstract knowledge transmitted from brain to brain, nor a set of values defined by their religious communities and discussed by scholars. It is a collective discernment and embodiment in which the whole creation participates. In the dialectic occurring between humans and the material world, the triune God emerges as a possible other who reconciles everything. Thus, Christianity is as much a materiality as a spirituality.

Chinese Christmas decorations work as a window of this Christianity as materiality. Just as the sensus fidei fidelium tells the true faith with more accuracy than what magisterial teaching may state, ornaments give flesh and spirit to a festive event, the coming of Christ. With vividness and multiplicity, Christmas decorations unveil the incarnation of Christ in contemporary China. Unafraid of ambiguities and diversity, they manifest the ongoing creation that God and his Son are performing in the People's Republic of China.

Michael Chambon is a French theologian and cultural anthropologist who studies Christianity in the Chinese world. This article first appeared on UCANews, an Asian Catholic news portal, and was made available to us by CNS.

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