The first snow in Beijing this year fell silently on the spruce trees along the path leading to St Saviour Church, giving an ethereal serenity to the walled compound in the hustle and bustle of the city. French Jesuits constructed the Gothic-style building now known as the North Church in the 17th century. Inside some 400 years later, Joseph crosses himself as he prepares to go back to his native Shandong province for Christmas. 'I grew up in a village where most of the families were Catholic,' he recalls. 'My first memory of Christmas was a day when neighbours came to our house to pray for my grandmother, who had been very ill. She sat up in her sick bed and broke into a smile. That night she died.' That was in the 1970s before the churches reopened after being shutdown during the Cultural Revolution. Since then, Christmas is a time for remembrance and renewal for Joseph. Now 31 and a teacher, he attends Mass regularly. There are 40,000 to 50,000 Catholics in the Beijing area. Many, like Joseph, are from old Catholic families, but a growing number of new converts are college students, who are changing the demographic profile of the congregation. People under 40 make up 40 per cent of the churchgoers. Across town in the Church of Immaculate Conception, known as the South Church, the atmosphere is convivial for the coming holiday. As the oldest church in Beijing, it blends Chinese and Italian architectural features with courtyards and thick-walled brick houses around them. On Sundays, it is standing room only with Chinese and foreign worshippers. According to government regulations, religious activities can be carried out only in registered locations, such as in the church, and proselytising in public is prohibited. Holidays like Christmas and Easter give the church an occasion to reach out to a large number of non-Christians. Every year, 50,000 to 60,000 visitors come in on Christmas Eve. Midnight services at government-approved Protestant churches draw from 400 to 1,500 people, many of them curiosity seekers with no interest in Christianity as a religion. 'Receiving visitors on holidays is a major task for the church,' says Sister Catherine Dai, who is in charge of the South Church's external relations. This year the South Church has decorated the garden at the entrance in Western style and the inner garden in Chinese style. It is planning a gallery to exhibit paintings, vestments, chalices and other church artefacts to introduce non-Christians to the Catholic culture, which, however, may not be ready for Christmas this year, she adds. Mr Cui, a retired accountant, came to the church to help with the decoration. Many young people are attracted to the church by its external trappings, he says. 'I have no problem with the commercial aspect,' he adds. 'If people are brought to the Lord by those elements, why not?' Meanwhile, across town, fourth-year university student Diana Zhong, also a Christian, and her non-Christian boyfriend will knock back a beer or two - if they can find a peaceful spot in Beijing's screaming holiday week bar scene. 'Bars are inevitable, but maybe not a disco bar, just somewhere peaceful and quiet,' says the 21-year-old Beijinger. Since the mid-1990s, as Christmas has permeated modern Chinese cities, bar service has vied for attention with church services on December 24 and 25, because many younger Chinese people see the holiday more as a party tribute to the West than as a day of religious reflection. 'They like the West, that's all, especially America,' says Feng Cheng, leader of a Beijing weekend activity club. 'They criticise the politics but like everything else.' Chinese cities share a look with Western countries. Decorated, frosted Christmas conifers stand in the public areas of Beijing shopping malls such as Parkson, Cofco Plaza and the China World Centre. Some malls put up tinsel, wreaths and full-lobby gingerbread houses, but nativity scenes are out. Plastic Christmas trees, holiday music and angel figurines have a following, though, and department stores may hire Santa Claus to give goodies to children. Teenagers, college students or young white collar workers shop for gifts but keep the exchanges simple - one present per person. The same type of people also exchange cards, but most individuals send free Internet greetings, leaving printed cards for companies to send their clients. Christmas also means partying. Employers seldom give staff the day off on December 24 or 25, but some invite performers to sing Christmas carols at customary year-end bashes. Younger city dwellers may spend Christmas Eve out anyway. Church services over, some move on to bars, where waitresses wear Santa caps or gather customers for a Christmas Eve countdown followed by a mass toast. When bars close, some patrons will move on to late-night private parties. To the church and bar crowds, Christmas feels like progress, says Beijing entertainment magazine columnist Jiang Xi. 'This is a developing country, and they respect modernisation,' says Mr Jiang, who plans to join friends at a bar tomorrow, then proceed to a church service.