Our Family Traditions: A Multinational Journey on Christmas Eve
Every year more people from all over the world come to live in Dongguan and with them they bring their own unique culture and fascinating traditions. For many, Christmas is a time when these traditions become especially important. HERE! visited some churches and homes to see how people in Dongguan celebrate the holiday, and imagined how they might spend Christmas Eve this year.
FOR MR. LIN, FROM GUANGDONG, CHRISTMAS IS A CHANCE TO REFLECT ON HOW FAR HIS CHURCH HAS COME…
It’s Christmas Eve in Dongguan. Mr. Lin enters the prayer hall and tries to find his wife. His family has been Christian ever since his great great grandmother recovered from illness in a missionary hospital in Shantou. When he first came to this prayer hall in the 1980s there were only a dozen or so people. This evening there are over a thousand.
Before he came to the prayer hall Mr. Lin closed his phone store early and treated his employees to a meal. During the holidays he also offers discounts to his customers. Mr. Lin’s phone store is not the only business to offer deals at Christmas. Every year more and more in Dongguan try to make money out of the holiday. While some Christians are offended by this, Mr. Lin is more positive. “For every ten people who see these advertisements, perhaps five will come to the church to learn the true meaning of Christmas,” he explains.
There is an air of excitement in the prayer hall. There will be a show and the church will also give presents. Last year it was a handbag. This year the rumor is that it will be an umbrella.
Apart from an Uncle who gives out red envelopes, giving and receiving presents are not an important part of Christmas for Mr. Lin’s family. The younger generation exchange presents, but it was never something that he did. “Our traditions are simpler,” he muses.
Mr. Lin takes his seat in the prayer hall beside his wife. There was a time when their son would also be sat with them. However, he now lives in Guangzhou. Unlike his parents he is unable to take time off work so he cannot be with his family to celebrate Christmas. It is a pity but it is not uncommon. For Chinese, Christmas is not a holiday in the same way that it is for many of those in the rest of the world.
FOR ALINE MARTINS, FROM BRAZIL, CHRISTMAS IS AN EXCUSE TO DRESS UP AS SANTA…
In their bedroom, Aline is helping her husband, Otavio, dress up as Santa. “How do I look?” he asks. “Wait,” Aline straightens his fake beard, “Perfect!”
Aline and Otavio have not been home for Christmas since they moved to Dongguan from Brazil several years ago. It is the busiest time of the year for Otavio and he cannot take the time off work. While it saddens them that they cannot spend Christmas in Brazil, they have created many traditions here in Dongguan.
Aline goes into the living room where her friends are waiting. Her three year old son ,Vitor, sits on the floor playing with a toy while her friend cradles her baby, Murilo.
Every year Aline and her friends gather in one of their homes. They have a dinner where they eat Fritos and drink Chimarrao. Afterwards, one of the men will dress up as Santa and give out presents. When everyone finally leaves at around two in the morning the hosts give out a gift. Aline’s favorite gift was a fridge magnet with a photo of the group together.
Aline has many happy memories of Christmas in China. Last year they went on a trip to Disneyland in Hong Kong. On Christmas Eve, Vitor read a bedtime story with Mickey Mouse. Aline’s eyes light up when she talks about it, “It was like a dream!”
Her fondest memory is of when her Father-in-law came to Dongguan for the holidays. Aline was pregnant with Vitor at the time. Her Father-in-Law is a Doctor and he performed a sonogram so that everyone could see Vitor.
Aline smiles as Otavio comes out of the bedroom dressed as Santa and all the children run to him. Sometimes she misses Christmas in Brazil, but there are few feelings better than being together with family and friends at this special time of year.
FOR KATHY TAN, FROM HUNAN, CHRISTMAS IS A TIME FOR GIVING…
Kathy is waiting for her turn at the Lucky Dip. Every Christmas the members of her church bring gifts which are placed into a draw. Last year she received underwear. This year she is hoping for something different.
Kathy is the first Christian in her family. She became interested in Christianity while studying at university in Hunan when she saw a Bible in her dormitory. When she moved to Dongguan she converted to Christianity.
Kathy goes up for the Lucky Dip and is relieved when it is not underwear. After the draw, they sing together and later there is a play based on a story from the Bible.
Although Kathy enjoys going to church on Christmas Eve, it is not her favorite part of Christmas. For Kathy it is a time to help others. Her church raises money in a number of ways such as selling scarves and badges.
Kathy helps out in her own way, “I have a degree in English so I thought about ways I could use that to help. I work at an international language school and donate the money I earn.”
The cause they donate to changes each year. Kathy remembers one year when they paid for a year of education for an orphaned student who could not afford to study.
On the way home Kathy sees some students giving each other apples as presents and she remembers doing the same when she was at university. In Mandarin, Christmas, Ping An Ye, sounds similar to apple, Ping Guo. Therefore, some students give each other apples at Christmas.
FOR APOLLO QUILAO, FROM THE PHILLIPPINES, CHRISTMAS IS ABOUT CATCHING UP WITH OLD FRIENDS…
Apollo waits outside a church in Batangas in the Philippines. He stands in line to buy Puto Bumbong, a rice cake served during Christmas.
A few weeks ago he was at a Christmas party in Dongcheng, celebrating with more than a hundred of the other Filipinos who live in Dongguan, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
The party begins with prayers and afterwards everyone introduces themselves. With the prayers and introductions out of the way they sit down to a meal that includes adobo and puchero. After the meal comes the raffle. All the prizes are donated by those who have come to the meal.
“The most important aspect of Filipino culture is sharing,” Apollo explains proudly. The celebration is only successful because everyone contributes. Apollo is an engineer for a company that manufactures speakers so he brings some samples for the raffle. However, donating prizes is not the only way to contribute. His friend, Juan Carlos, is a chef, so he volunteers to prepare the meals.
No Filipino party is complete without music and the Christmas party is no exception. There are many musicians from the Philippines who work in Dongguan, Shenzhen or Guangzhou. They will perform as their way of contributing, but anyone is welcome to join in. This is the only time of the year that the Filipino community will get together like this and so the party continues late into the night.
FOR FATHER YANG, FROM GANSU, CHRISTMAS REMINDS HIM OF HIS CHILDHOOD…
In Guancheng, if you walk down a side street past stalls selling fake handbags and take a turn down a narrow alley you can find Dongguan’s only Catholic Church. The church is small and, apart from the neon cross above the entrance, it is the same as every other building in the alley.
Most evenings the church is quiet, but tonight there are over a thousand people and the church is so crowded that they have overflowed into the alley. They have set up a projector outside so everyone can see as Father Yang steps up to the altar to deliver Christmas Eve mass.
Like most Catholics in the church, Father Yang is not originally from Dongguan. Many come from Northern provinces, such as Henan, Hubei and Gansu.
As surprising as that may seem, when you study the history it is understandable. In Dongguan, during the Second World War, Chinese Guerrilla fighters targeted Catholics and destroyed many of their churches. The few Catholics that remained disappeared with the Cultural Revolution.
Father Yang’s memories growing up as a Catholic in Gansu shaped him greatly. One memory stands out in particular. When he was still a boy there was a White Christmas but that was not what made it so memorable.
During the Cultural Revolution the priests from his village were imprisoned, but after 1979, the government began to release the priests. That Christmas the priests from his village were released.
There was no church in the village so the villagers cleared a space in the fields so the priests could perform mass. It had been many years since many of the villagers had been able to go to mass, and for some of the children, it was their first time.
The boy who sat in the cornfield on that snowy Christmas Eve would never imagine that one day he would be delivering mass to over a thousand people in a church.
FOR ALICIA MOUW, FROM THE U.S.A., CHRISTMAS IS A CHANCE TO GO ON HOLIDAY…
Alicia is in a hotel in Tokyo with her husband, Zack, and their baby daughter, Ada. They are waiting to meet Alicia’s brother. They have travelled from Dongguan and her brother has travelled from Philadelphia so they can spend Christmas together.
Alicia and Zack are both teachers so they do not have to work over the Christmas period. They like to use some of this time to go on holiday and in the past they have gone to Hong Kong and Bali. It is not a traditional Christmas, but for Alicia, and many others in Dongguan, going on holiday has become part of a new Christmas tradition.
Alicia will also spend some of their holidays in Dongguan so she enjoys decorating her home. She thought it would be difficult to decorate like she used to back home in Tennessee. However, one day when she was walking along the Flower Street she was surprised to find a winter wonderland. They had all the decorations she wanted; tinsel, trees, Santa.
While she was surprised to find decorations in Dongguan, the city is still very different from Christmas back home, but for Alicia this is not necessarily a bad thing. “I went back to the U.S. during the summer. One day I was shopping in the mall and they had already hung up their Christmas decorations,” she sighs.
For some, Christmas is not celebrated enough in Dongguan. For others, Dongguan can be a welcome return to a time when you did not see Santa Claus in stores in September and families did not put up their tree until after Thanksgiving.
FOR DAVID YAN, FROM GUANGDONG, CHRISTMAS IS A TIME HE SPENDS WITH HIS FAMILY…
In a prayer hall in Shilong, David watches his son compete in a quiz. Sat with him are his daughter, wife and parents.
David’s family comes from a long line of Christians. In Heyuan, his great great grandfather was a calligrapher. The local Christian church commissioned him to do a series of works. They were so impressed that they asked him to come back and eventually he converted to Christianity.
Watching the quiz reminds David of when his son won the same competition for reciting from memory a passage from the Bible. His son was presented with a large teddy bear that he treasures dearly. “It is a gift from God,” his son beams.
After the quiz, David gets into a conversation with the man beside him. David gives the man his business card which includes a proverb from the Bible. As David speaks to the man, his father looks around at all the people gathered together. “When I see so many brothers and sisters worshipping it makes me very happy. Thanks to God,” he says raising his hands in the air.
FOR PRUE MILLER, FROM NEW ZEALAND, CHRISTMAS IS A CHANCE FOR PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD TO COME TOGETHER…
Prue sits down to dinner with her friends and family. Prue’s friends come from all over the world and so for Christmas she has invited them to bring along a dish: Baklava from Turkey, Leg of Lamb from America, Hamantashen from Israel, and Ham from New Zealand.
Also at the dinner are Prue’s mother and brother, who recently moved from Hong Kong.
There was a time when she would have had to go home to New Zealand to be with her family for Christmas, but as Prue and many others marry and have children, more parents and siblings are choosing to come to celebrate Christmas in Dongguan.
Prue grew up in New Zealand where Christmas falls during the summer. She fondly remembers going to the beach on Christmas Day with her family. There might not be any trips to the beach this year but she is more than happy to spend her evening sharing a meal with her family and friends.
FOR DAVID SCOURFIELD, FROM WALES, CHRISTMAS IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO GO HOME…
In Cardiff, David walks to Midnight Mass with his family; his wife Becky and his two children, Liam and Amalie.
David moved to Dongguan five years ago where he met Becky, from Hunan, and it was not long before they were married. At first David tried to introduce Becky’s family to Christmas. He put up a tree and bought presents for all the family. David laughs as he tells the story, “It was a complete disaster! Becky’s family didn’t know what to do. When I gave her sister a present she didn’t open it and later she put it back underneath the tree.”
Ever since, David and his family have been going back to Wales for Christmas, but he admits even if Christmas was more celebrated in Dongguan he would still go back home every year. For David, Christmas is all about family and his family is in Cardiff.
However, it’s not just David who likes to go to Wales for Christmas. Becky loves to catch up with David’s parents and brothers, and it’s important to David and Becky that Liam and Amalie spend time with their family in Wales.
After Midnight Mass, they put Liam and Amalie to bed. When he is sure they are asleep, David puts some presents at the bottom of their bed for them to wake up to in the morning; like his parents used to do when he was a child.
BACK IN DONGGUAN, CHRISTMAS EVE IS NEARLY OVER…
Mr. Ling walks home with his wife while he speaks to his son on the phone and they wish each other a Merry Christmas. Aline holds Murielo and watches Otavio help Vitor ride the bicycle he received from Santa. David and his family are driving home from Shilong. In the car they sing Christmas Carols.
Prue and her husband say goodbye to their guests and begin to clear the table. As she picks up a plate she sees her tree through the window; wrapped in tinsel and bells. At the top, shining brightly, is an angel.