Searching for the true meaning of Christmas in Taiwan

by Angela Lu Fulton

Posted on Thursday, December 24, 2015, at 8:55 am

TAIPEI, Taiwan—In front of the Miramar shopping center stands a towering Christmas tree blinking its white and blue lights as shoppers browse through luxury-brand purses, watch movies, or ride the 230-foot Ferris wheel atop the building. When I first spotted the tree from across the street, my heart leaped at the small reminder of the most wonderful time of the year on an island that doesn’t recognize Christmas as a holiday. With the weather in the 70s and work and school continuing all this week, it’s easy to forget it’s Christmas at all.

But as I walked closer, I realized the tree was covered with large Star Wars starfighters, guarded by a cardboard Darth Vader and several stormtroopers standing on top of the movie’s iconic logo: The tree was a holiday-themed advertisement for the new Star Wars movie.

Elsewhere in Taipei, the corporate co-opting of Christmas is rampant. The jewelry store Pandora set up a conical Christmas tree covered in engagement rings and flashing white; Charlie Brown and Snoopy have a tree by the iconic Taipei 101 building, advertising the Peanuts movie that releases on Christmas Eve; Thomas the Train adorns a tree at Taipei’s train station. The neighboring New Taipei City put on Christmasland, which consists of an abstract “Christmas tree” with lights and images projected onto its surface, an avenue covered in Christmas lights and selfie-takers, and even a line of children waiting to take pictures with a storefront mannequin dressed in a Santa suit and beard.

It seems mainstream Taiwan has only imported the worst parts of Western Christmas culture—its materialism and commercial appeal—while leaving out the true message of hope and even the ideals of giving and spending time with family. And without the true root of Christmas, it’s difficult to capture the feeling of Christmas no matter how many times the stores play Michael Buble’s Christmas album: Everything felt flashy and plastic, like the chiseled mannequin Santa Claus.

But inside the churches of Taipei, the message of Christmas still rings loud. Last weekend, Hsin-yi Friendship Presbyterian Church, a prominent church where about 3,000 people gather each Sunday, saw its pews filled as the children’s ministry put on an elaborate Christmas play involving a prince who takes a journey to Bethlehem and learns about the promise of the Messiah, the teachings of Jesus, and His work on the cross. A children’s choir and orchestra accompanied the action onstage, while the grand finale brought out pint-sized angels, a colorful nativity scene, and classic Christmas songs.

And the message spread out the church doors as the influential English-teaching ministry Overseas Radio and Television invited its students to eight live Christmas performances at churches, colleges, and venues across Taiwan. In addition to the thousands of people in attendance, the show—which included music, dancing, skits, and a gospel message—also was broadcast on TV.

At the young adults ministry at Hsin-yi Friendship Church, leaders handed out cards for attendees to give to their friends to invite them to a special Christmas service as well as space to write a personal message. For those nervous to speak up, they also planned a class to teach Christians how to evangelize to their friends. A team planned to pray for everyone invited. A young woman in her twenties held up the cards and said, “This is your opportunity to give your friends the best gift this Christmas—Jesus.”

While the phrase may seem cliché, amid the Star Wars Christmas tree and tacky decorations, it was the truest thing I’d heard all season.

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Taiwan. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela818.

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