Christmas in the Orient
• SOME TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, a prominent Korean scholar visited Peking, China. Staring at a painting on the ceiling of a cathedral, he saw a scene of Mary with the child Jesus in her arms. He said of this startling painting:
“A lady held a sickly-looking child, about five or six years old, on her lap. She seemed to have little strength in her neck, as if she couldn’t bear to watch her son for pity. And far behind them there were a lot of ghosts and babies with wings flying around. As I stared at them above me, it looked as if they would drop down on me at any moment. Startled, I put my hand out to take them.”
THAT occurred long after the Reformation began in Europe, long after the dark era of the Middle Ages. But to most Orientals, Christianity was as unfamiliar as the painting itself. How that situation has changed! Every Christmas season, scenes of the baby Jesus are featured. The Orient has become used to such scenes, and many streets there now resemble those in Europe.
On the evening of November 25, 1998, a month prior to Christmas, the Champs Élysées in Paris is brightly lit by over 100,000 bulbs on the 300 trees lining that famous avenue. Comparably, on a downtown street in Seoul, Korea, a giant Christmas tree is featured by a major department store and begins to brighten the night in that capital city. Soon its streets are adorned with Christmas decorations.
Television, radio, and newspapers present Christmas-related programs day after day. Stirred by the Christmas mood, the whole country becomes occupied with welcoming the end of the year. The churches in Seoul, the number of which astonishes many visitors, get decorated in a hurry. Thus, Korea and other countries in the Orient are engulfed by the Christmas spirit about the time that the United States is involved in its Thanksgiving Day celebration in late November.
Most countries of the Orient are not considered part of Christendom. For instance, only 26.3 percent of the population of Korea professes to be Christian. In Hong Kong it is 7.9 percent, in Taiwan 7.4 percent, and in Japan only 1.2 percent. Clearly, most Orientals do not practice Christianity, but they seem to have no objection to celebrating Christmas. In fact, they often seem to be more enthusiastic about it than their Western counterparts are. Hong Kong, for instance, is well-known for its flamboyant Christmas celebration, even though most of its inhabitants are either Buddhists or Taoists. Even in China, where only 0.1 percent professes to be Christian, Christmas is very rapidly gaining in popularity.
Why is Christmas celebrated so widely in the Orient? Why do people who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah join in celebrating Christmas, which most professing Christians view as his birthday? Should true Christians imitate their view of Christmas? We shall find the answers as we consider how Christmas became popularized in Korea, an age-old country of the Orient.