Christmas: the festival for everyone

For some, Christmas is a deeply religious occasion, while for others it's all about the gifts. But everyone can enjoy the festival, says Annemarie Evans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 3:01pm

Nine-year-old Rumi Pun Hang knows Santa Claus and his reindeer visited her home last Christmas Eve. She's sure of it because the glass of wine she left for him was empty the next morning and there were bite marks in the pieces of carrot left for the reindeer.

A pupil at Pui Tak Cannossian Primary School in Aberdeen, Rumi enjoys the gifts and colourful decorations associated with Christmas, but she has also learned that there's more to the festivities. "My teacher tells me that Christmas is a time when things we do wrong, we shouldn't do any more," she says.

In contrast to hundreds of children making wish lists for their stockings, she declares: "I don't need any presents this year because I had many last year."

Christmas has been celebrated in Hong Kong for more than 150 years, but it's only in recent decades that the celebrations have become mainstream, with thousands of people turning out to see the lights, and joining the countdowns in Causeway Bay or Tsim Sha Tsui.

The celebrations remain largely secular. That's perhaps not surprising as only 8 per cent of the population are Christians, says Reverend John Chynchen, the chaplain at St John's Cathedral.

"Christianity has this remarkable favoured place in Hong Kong, and probably in most of the former British colonies," he says, although he notes that the "stickability rate of faith" for students leaving mission schools is only 5 per cent to 6 per cent.

Chynchen reckons the Chinese community embraces the festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ because "as human beings we are softened and attracted to stories about babies being born". Nonetheless, the story of Christ, whom he calls "the greatest ethical teacher", is still very relevant and cuts through the clamour of commercialism. "I think it transcends this business of exchanging goodies."

Historically, the four Sundays before Christmas - a period known as Advent - are a time for reflection, and for getting rid of the rubbish in our lives, says Reverend Will Newman of St Stephen's Chapel in Stanley. But such contemplation has largely been obliterated by the run-up to the Christmas festivities.

For ministers like Newman and Chynchen, it is a hectic time, with churches putting on additional services. But this is also "the most magical time of the year", says Newman, who holds a candlelight service for his small congregation, which is made up mainly of Westerners and English-speaking Chinese. "Every time I prepare for Christmas, it's not a matter of counting off the days; it's a new experience."

Involving children in these occasions is very important, Chynchen says. On Christmas Eve, St John's Cathedral holds a crib service in the afternoon, where youngsters gather around to look at nativity scenes and listen to biblical stories.

In the evening, there is also a Christingle service, a tradition dating back to Germany in the 1750s, where children carry oranges with candles to represent enlightenment by Christ.

This year the cathedral also held a Blue Christmas Service for those mourning a loss. "It's a semi-stress position for clergy," says 74-year-old Chynchen. "One collapses for a few days afterwards."

Chynchen grew up in London, and recalls how goods were in short supply when he was a child because Britain was recovering from the second world war. Yet there was always an orange in his Christmas stocking, which, he adds jokingly, was a waste of good space: "I could have had a couple of chocolate biscuits instead, or another toy car."

Dermatologist Louis Shih Tai-cho, 60, remembers material scarcity in his childhood Christmases, but says there was plenty of family warmth.

"As a child there wasn't much Christmas except at school. Back at home, it was more traditional Chinese style. We were poor. We lived in low-cost housing, where there was just one room for the whole family.

"But we really got a sense of Christmas, because my father was a humble clerk at The Peninsula hotel, and at Christmas he could take home surplus food. So we would have small portions of turkey and Christmas pudding, which was really lovely as we could never dream of buying that kind of food," Shih remembers.

Now that their three children have grown up, Shih and his wife don't worry too much about getting them festive gifts. Even when the children were little, the Shihs were often dismayed at the huge amount of presents they would receive from friends and family. "When they played with all these presents, they had a short attention span," he says. "So we asked them to donate the presents they didn't play with to a local charity. It was just excessive."

That won't be a concern for nine-year-old twins Connor and James Bishop, who can't wait for Christmas as the term winds up at Quarry Bay School. Asked to define what the festival is about, Connor cuts to the chase: "The presents." Prompted by their mother, James adds: "We leave out a glass of milk and biscuits [for Santa]," although he may have been caught on the hop last year, "because he forgot to drink the milk".

Filipino domestic helpers Florida Rapio, 28, and her sister, Flordeliza, 44, always look forward to Christmas at home. This year it is Flordeliza's turn to celebrate with their elderly mother in Manila.

"We'll have a meal together on Christmas Eve, called Nochebuena. We usually go to midnight mass around 10pm, and then we have a meal together," she says.

Their parents used to run a small store and couldn't afford presents for each other at Christmas, but the children always received new clothes and shoes, Florida says. "I miss not being there at Christmas."

The festival is taken very seriously in the Philippines, where decorations go up at the end of the summer, and malls start playing carols from September.

Korean-Danish businessman Dan Gundersen, on a break from gift-hunting in Times Square, sees mostly traces of the celebrations that he has known.

"I grew up in Denmark, so we celebrate a Scandinavian Christmas on the 24th in the evening with a traditional pork roast and turkey. In Hong Kong it's more a glimpse of Christmas."

Mong Kok resident Gan Chun, 80, views Christmas as "more of a foreigner thing", although she recalls school parties as a child. "When I had children, we would go out for a meal and look at the lights. Then my husband and I moved to Britain in the 1990s to live with our son. He and his wife would cook a traditional meal with the turkey and everything. So we would eat Western food to please him. But now we're back, we won't bother."

Just back from switching on the Christmas lights in Guangzhou, entrepreneur Allan Zeman has seen a shift in the festivities over the decades. "When I first came here [more than 40 years ago], obviously Christmas wasn't as prevalent as it is today. But the Brits were here, so it was celebrated, and there was a sense of Christmas. Today the Chinese are much more Westernised. The locals travel, so people have become more international.

"A small percentage of the local population will go to church for midnight mass, but by and large the religious aspect bypasses the people here. It is more about Santa Claus and the lights. I don't think it's about whether you believe in Jesus Christ or not. It's a wonderful tradition - giving presents and families getting together. There's something magical about it."

Newman, who also serves as chaplain at Stanley Prison, says Christmas can be a lonely time, particularly for foreign inmates.

"I go in on Friday mornings and visit four groups of prisoners with volunteers," he says. "There are some Chinese Christians, a few Filipinos and a few Africans. We go in and sing carols. There is high security and the groups are divided and not permitted to mix."

For the prisoners, the contact with Newman and his volunteers has particular value, as it is not carried out through a glass screen.

"Most of the Chinese feel more down at Lunar New Year, as that's when families are supposed to be together," says Newman. "It's harder for the foreign prisoners, who have their families far away. One group of prisoners did a Christmas service for us, taking it in turns to read out parts. They had practised carols and they sang for us. It was very moving."

So what does this prison chaplain want for Christmas?

"Oh, I think like most middle-aged dads, a kiss from my wife and a hug from my children," he says.