Joy to the World On Christmas Sunday

Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then.  Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm.  It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music.  In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.

As I have written several times before, Christmas in America always reminds me of Spring Festival in China. From the red decorations to the festive air, from family gatherings to gift giving, these two large holidays have a lot in common. Come to think of it, both occasions mark the beginning of a new year in their own way. The Spring Festival marks the beginning of a new year in the Chinese lunar calendar, and Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the church calendar. 

However, over the past several years, I have noticed one major difference between how the Eastern and Western cultures celebrate these major holidays. Christmas in America is what I would consider an "internal holiday." My impression of the "ideal" Christmas is of a family sitting around the living room, exchanging presents, and playing with new toys. Many of us do make long drives or take long flights to visit our families during this season, but on the actual holiday itself, very few people are outside or on the road. Restaurants are mostly closed; the streets are eerily quiet. During the three Christmases I have spent with my wife's family in Champaign, IL, I don't think we even made it out of the house. This is also true for Thanksgiving as well. Many people may travel to visit families, but the main celebration is carving up the turkey in the dining room.

Chinese Spring Festival, on the other hand, is what I would consider an "external holiday." From the first day to the seventh (most companies give employees seven days off), I do not remember ever spending a day at home with just my parents. We would go visit the homes of our relatives, or they would come visit us. We would walk around flower markets (花街) and play with firecrackers on the street. Restaurants are full of people; vendors and grocers bring in huge profits because people are buying fruit and presents for visiting each other. The general atmosphere over the whole season is what we called 热闹, literally translated as "warm and noisy." It is almost the direct opposite of the silent nights and peaceful Christmas days in America.  

That is not to say we do not have any "external holidays" in America. Our 4th of July and Halloweens are some of the most 热闹 (warm and noisy) celebrations I have ever seen. But when it comes to Thanksgiving and Christmas, we tend to stay at home – at least that is my personal experience with these holidays in America for the past seventeen years.

This presents a challenge for churches in years like 2016, when Christmas falls on a Sunday. How do we hold Sunday services without being too disruptive to people's family traditions? Will people even come to church on Christmas Sunday, especially when we just had a Christmas Eve service the night before? At least for my own church – and the church I was attending last time this happened – we are planning to have a shorter service so that folks can spend the rest of the day with their families. 

I totally understand the desire to spend quality time with families over the holiday. Many of us only get to see our families once or twice a year. But I attended an event last weekend that reminded me of my other family. It was a Christmas celebration in a suburban town in Ohio. There were songs, dances, and stories about Christmas traditions in Ghana, the Caribbean, India, Iran, Malaysia, and China. As I sat there listening to these stories, I realized that as exotic as these traditions may be, as different as they are from what we do in America, there is really no such thing as a ‘normal’ Christmas. Christmas belongs to ‘them’ as it belongs to ‘us.’ Jesus is the light to the nations, and this light shines just as much in the darkness of China as it does in the darkness of America.

Christmas is not a national holiday in China (and in many other nations), and I do not imagine that my relatives in China will be getting together to sing carols and exchange presents. But I am willing to bet with my life that in China, in other parts of Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America, there are thousands of followers of Jesus who will be risking their livelihood to gather on this Christmas Sunday for no other reason than being together to celebrate our hope in the birth of Christ. I know Christians in recent years have often only held services on Christmas Eve, but this Christmas Sunday should be especially meaningful because we will not only be celebrating with our earthly families, but also with our brothers and sisters around the world. Even the closest earthly families are only foretastes of the communion of the saints we have in God's eternal kingdom, and this Christmas Sunday we will have a chance to celebrate both.