Millions of people celebrated Christmas in China yesterday as the holiday becomes increasingly popular, both commercially and religiously, despite government attempts to limit the spread of Christianity.
State-approved churches in Beijing reported bigger crowds than previous years, with many worshippers and others packed against the aisles or standing outside churches watching services on TV monitors.
"It's mainly because people are facing increasing pressures in life. They want to find something that brings them peace and balance," a nun surnamed Yu at the Nantang Catholic church in Beijing told AFP.
A Beijing TV journalist, Zhang Li, said 10,000 to 20,000 people thronged Beijing's Xishiku Catholic church which he attended on Christmas Eve.
He is among the growing number of Chinese people who are turning to religion for spiritual support, and goes to church every Christmas Eve even though he is not a Christian.
"I want to feel the Christmas atmosphere. I go there to pray for peace and good health for my family," Zhang said.
Hotels, restaurants and other businesses are also seizing on the holiday as a chance to boost earnings.
Christmas trees and lights now decorate shopping malls, restaurants and office buildings, with images of Santa more common than images of the country's most famous modern leader, the late Mao Zedong.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Social Survey Institute of China, 90 percent of 2,000 people surveyed in 14 big cities said they had celebration plans on Christmas Eve, Saturday's China Daily reported.
With gift-giving becoming more common, stores saw a surge in pre-Christmas spending, and many extended their closing time on Christmas Eve, Xinhua news agency said.
While the government sees the benefits of Christmas in boosting consumer spending, it is wary of the spread of Christianity, or any religion, for fear such a trend could rival its authority.
This year, the government continued to arrest priests and others who worship outside government approved churches, in "underground churches," which refuse to submit to government monitoring and meddling.
According to official statistics, China has 20 million Protestants and five million Catholics but that is just in government-approved churches. The number in unregistered churches are believed to be far higher.
The Vatican, whose authority Beijing refuses to recognize, estimates there are 10 million Catholics in underground churches. There are believed to be many more underground Protestants.
Underground Catholics or Protestants usually hold clandestine Christmas Day services. Some meet in restaurants, people's homes or even in farm fields in rural areas to avoid detection.
Proselytizing is still banned and Bibles are not readily available even at some big bookstores. In May last year, the government issued a secret document ordering a nationwide promotion of atheism.
Compared to the earlier decades of Communist rule, however, the government's current treatment of religion was far more lenient, Liu Bainian, vice president of the state-approved Catholic Patriotic Association, told AFP yesterday.