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How Christian expats from Asian countries celebrate the holy holiday in Beijing

Beijing might feel like a long way from home for many, especially expats who spend their Christmas in the city. But despite the distance, some of them have found their own way to realize the true meaning of Christmas in China's capital.

Contrary to what one would expect, Westerners are not the only ones missing their religious traditions; expats from two Asian Christian countries, the Philippines and South Korea, also have religious traditions.

 The Philippines is the largest Catholic country in Asia with about 85 percent of its people identifying as Christian. Meanwhile, South Korea is an emerging Christian country with a rapidly growing Christian population.

Metropolitan invited Beijing-based Christian expats from these two countries to share how they celebrate Christmas and spread the spirit of the holiday.

A lack of religious spirit?

Filipino Arlyne Marasigan, a 38-year-old PhD student in education in Beijing, is very excited about the holiday season. According to Philippine traditions, Marasigan and her family would attend early morning mass every day at around 4 to 5 am from December 16 up to Christmas.

"Christmas is all about religion, the birth of Christ, and the practice of celebrating Christmas should be in a very religious context," she said.

Now a resident of Beijing, she attends mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

"In the Philippines, we start to decorate the house and play Christmas carols the moment the calendar turns to September 1. Some family members keep their decorations up until January," Marasigan said. "I think we celebrate Christmas the longest in the world!"

Many Filipino expats in Beijing, including Marasigan, go to the Xuanwumen Catholic Church in Xicheng district. The church offers a number of Christmas activities, and its choirs sing in English and Chinese.

Marasigan is a very active member of the church. "I am responsible for providing the PowerPoint presentation for mass every Sunday," she said.

To Marasigan, Beijing is beautifully decorated for Christmas, but the religious spirit is largely absent.

"The people around here, especially the children, get very excited about the holiday, but they don't have a clear idea of what it is," she said.

When Marasigan first arrived in the country in late December 2014, she was invited to give a talk to a group of primary school children in Beijing about Christmas in her country.

She was asked to wear a Santa suit and distribute candy to the children. She taught the children a Christmas song, and they drew Christmas cards together.

"The children had a clear idea that it is about gift-giving, sharing, love and joy," she said. "But one of the teachers said that, actually, people in China put up decorations and buy presents but don't really know why people celebrate it."

According to her, the Philippines has adopted some customs, such as gift -giving, from the West. But the Philippine traditions are a mixture of both.

Last year, Marasigan and her friends had a Christmas party at Peking University in Haidian district and shared Philippine food and drinks.

But this year, most of her friends have graduated and are working in different cities across the country, so this Christmas is less merry for her.

Marasigan said she has had a good year. "I still have six months, but I have really started to miss Beijing. I see the diversity of culture in the country, and I have learned a lot."

Missing the traditions of home 

Hong Seong-hun, a 29-year-old South Korean, is pursuing a master's degree in traditional Chinese medicine in Beijing. Hong plans to go to a friend's gathering on Christmas Eve and then attend morning mass on Christmas Day in Wangjing, a neighborhood that is known for its lively South Korean expat environment.

Hong misses the Christmas traditions back home.

Christmas is widely celebrated in South Korea, as a large number of the country's population are Christian.

"On Christmas Eve, we young people would gather at the church, divide ourselves into several groups, and go to the houses of the families who come to our church. We sing hymns for them at their doors so that the families are blessed," he said.

Some families would let them in to have some snacks, and others would give them all sorts of treats.

They would visit families from 7 pm until midnight, when they would regroup at the church. Afterward, they would package the food they had received and give them to children's homes and some other neighbors.

"Mostly, we give them to those who aren't Christians, and teach them about Jesus Christ," he said.

It's important that people know the meaning of Christmas, instead of seeing it as a simple holiday for fun, Hong said. At his church, people can bring non-Christians who are interested in the holiday and introduce them to the meaning of the celebration.

Other specific activities include going to Christmas concerts. But in Beijing, these traditions are lost.

"It would be great if we can also do this same segment here in China too," he said.

Giving more than gifts

Joy Shin, a 41-year-old South Korean, runs an English language training center in Wangjing. She arrived in Beijing 10 years ago and lives with her husband, son, parents and her sister's family. Although her 13-year-old son doesn't believe in Santa Claus anymore, the family still exchange gifts on Christmas day.

Shin usually has a small potluck at home with the family's Korean friends in Beijing. She'd also invite some neighbors who are not Christians. They would all sing songs and exchange gifts.

According to Shin, the Christmas traditions in South Korea also differ from that of non-Christians.

"For the young folks who don't know much about Jesus Christ, Christmas is just a fun and exciting Western holiday. They like to go to Myeong-dong (in downtown Seoul), have parties, exchange gifts, or do something else fun," she said. "I didn't celebrate the same way, but I miss that atmosphere."

Between China and her home country, Shin said there's not much difference in the merry ambience during Christmas season, including the decorations. But she pointed out that you hear fewer carols on the street here.

Amid all the mass-produced merchandise and decorations screaming Christmas, Shin also misses the handmade Christmas gifts and the meanings they carry.

"I loved making Christmas cards by myself when I was young. Nowadays, not many people use handmade Christmas card to give their blessings. That's sad," she said.

"It's a pity to see people enjoying Christmas without knowing anything. I just want people to know whose birthday they are celebrating."

This holiday Shin will be attending a Christmas dinner put on by the Christian group All Nations International Fellowship (ANIF), a fellowship made of expats in Beijing. The dinner is in aid of local orphanages.

"It will be really fun as our church has members from different countries. It's very international. I can experience African Christmas traditions too, as we have many friends from Africa," she said.

American Joe Castillo, the pastor of ANIF, told Metropolitan that as orphanages mainly provide food, shelter and care, the church's focus is on education. In 2017, Castillo will also partner with Vision International School in Beijing to send four orphans to school.

A vibrant church community

To have a merry Christmas holiday away from home, he suggests that Beijing expats who stay get involved in a church community.

"When you are a Christian, you have a Church family no matter what country you are in, and they give each other gifts, make desserts, gather and worship together, which makes it one heck of a Christmas even without the warmth of your hometown."

Having lived in Beijing since 2009, Castillo thinks that in China, the religious meaning is not overshadowed by the joyous ambiance or the commercialization of the Western holiday.

"An ambiance of joy is the meaning of Christmas. Whether the intention is for profit or not, it's not an issue," he said.

"This season brings cheer, generosity, good deeds and charity around the world, including in non-Christian nations from China all the way to Bangladesh. When I look around and see the lights, and see Merry Christmas, my heart is full."

(article from global times)