In this piece I share some thoughts on Christmas (圣诞节 Shèngdànjié) and New Year’s (新年 xīnnián) in Taiwan. (I have never been in China during the holidays.)
After a brief presence in the 17th century, Western Christian missionaries began arriving in Taiwan in the 1860s. One of Taipei’s major hospitals, MacKay Memorial Hospital (马偕纪念医院, Mǎjiē Jìniàn Yīyuàn), is named after a Canadian missionary from this time. On the mainland, Jesuit priests were there for roughly 200 years from the 16th to the 18th centuries before being expelled. Christians began returning in large numbers as explicit missionaries at roughly the same time as in Taiwan, although the practice of Christianity was at a minimum restricted and in many senses outright repressed for decades after the 1949 revolution. In addition, the catastrophic Taiping Rebellion of the mid-1800s was led by 洪秀全 (Hóng Xìuquán), who had once converted to Christianity, although by the time the war broke out his beliefs were quite different from orthodox Christianity.
On Taiwan there is now complete freedom of religion, including the freedom to proselytize. While during the years of martial law there was severe repression of political dissent, real or imagined, between 1949 and the democratization of the 1990s, there was little if any outright repression of Christianity. (Soong Mei-ling, Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, was herself a child of a Chinese Methodist missionary, and Chiang had to convert before marrying her.) The share of people in Taiwan who are Christian is nonetheless quite small, certainly less than 10%. In my experience among Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants in the US, there are people from both sides of the straits who are Christian, but among my personal acquaintances it seems that Chinese are more likely than Taiwanese to be so. Whether this is because Chinese are more likely to convert after they get here or as Christians in their home country are more likely to want to emigrate I cannot say. But I know more than a few Chinese and Taiwanese in the U.S. who are professed Christians. (I briefly attended free Chinese-language instruction at a Chinese-language church where I live, most of whose congregants are Taiwanese.)
During my several visits to Taiwan, the Taiwanese Christians I have met are quite devout, usually evangelical. And churches are not hard to find.
I personally have lived in the vicinity of both Catholic and Protestant (including Anglican) ones. Additionally, twice in the course of my work there I have lived on the campus of Soochow University (东吴大学, Dōngwú Dàxué). It was founded in 1900 on the mainland by American Methodists, and was reestablished on Taiwan soon after the 1949 evacuation. (On the mainland there is now a university called Soochow University, although it has no religious affiliation. When speaking in English it may be necessary to specify which one, but in Chinese the name of the mainland university is 苏州大学, Sūzhōu Dàxué.) The Taiwanese university has a church on campus that holds well-attended services every Sunday, and every time I have lived there there is a clergyman and his family who are living on campus, performing a chaplain’s function. Unlike many institutions profit and nonprofit in Taiwan, the Taiwanese Soochow U. is not open on Christmas, and neither are the other universities founded by other denominations, of which there are several in Taiwan. (Most businesses that do not directly retail to consumers are in contrast closed on New Year’s.)
Obviously, the Christmas atmosphere is not so overwhelming in Taiwan as in the US, although Christmas decorations are often found in shopping malls and grocery stores.
The holiday feels considerably more secular than religious, although this is how it is been in the US to for a long time, and in Taiwan it is not as overwhelmingly shopping-oriented as it seems to me to be in Singapore. (Go to Orchard Street during the holidays if you don’t believe me!) Unlike the night before the Chinese New Year (农历除夕, nónglì Chúxì), when everyone is at home and the streets are bereft of people, on Christmas Eve in Taiwan there is no particular special feeling; the streets are about as crowded as usual. December 25 was a holiday in Taiwan from 1963 to the early 2000s, but was celebrated as Constitution Day, in honor of the first constitution of the Republic of China after the end of World War II. But the holiday was ended, probably for political reasons, shortly after the Democratic Progressive Party took power for the first time in 2001. There is some push to restore the day as a public holiday, with the idea of aligning with Western countries. But for now it is just another day at the office.
While Taiwan technically celebrates January 1 merely as a holiday commemorating the establishment of the Republic of China on the mainland in 1911, it is a public holiday. Both New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve are seen as occasions for celebration. In Taipei the largest (by far) New Year’s Eve celebration is at the Taipei 101 skyscraper, although I have never been; I just do not have the patience to fight the crowds. (One year I was able to watch the fireworks from the roof of my own apartment building.) My wife and our son went once; she said it’s the kind of thing that she’s glad she attended once, but on account of the crowds once is plenty.