Christmas Eve Celebrations at Nanjing’s Most Historic Church

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St. Paul's Church

Passers-by yesterday evening on Nanjing’s Taiping Nan Lu might have seen the squadron of flashing police vehicles and the long queue of people lining the busy pavement and wondered what concert or newly-opened restaurant was the cause of all the commotion. They would have been mistaken, however, for the queue flowed neither into a concert hall or restaurant, but rather a church. Hundreds of Nanjing’s Christians were waiting to enter St. Paul’s, the city’s oldest official Christian church, for its annual Christmas Eve choral service.

Christmas Eve has always been one of the busiest days in the church’s calendar, with close to a thousand churchgoers participating in the Christmas celebrations. There was a significant police presence, with barricades set up to steadily funnel the large number of people into the church. The queue was almost 200 metres long and stretched all the way around the nearest intersection onto a small street perpendicular. St. Paul’s is one of the biggest churches in Nanjing, boasting over 5,000 members and more than 3,000 weekly attendees, whether it be for their four Chinese services or two English discussion groups held each week.

As a reward for their patience, all attendees were gifted an apple, a popular tradition amongst China’s Christians, as the Chinese name for Christmas Eve (“Ping An Ye”) sounds similar to the Chinese word for an apple, (“Ping Guo”). Although everyone in the queue was let into the church grounds, not everyone could join in the service inside the main parish hall; there were not enough seats available, even with additional stools set up along the side aisles. Latecomers were sat in an auxiliary building where they followed the service on TVs broadcasting live from inside the main hall.

The evening’s events flowed through melody; several of the church’s choirs, as well as an ensemble of strings and oboes warmed the chilly winter evening with their renditions of traditional Christmas songs. The congregation joined in unison for several tunes, in good voice as they celebrated the imminent arrival of the day commemorating Jesus’ birth. Though the service was in Chinese, there were several English songs sung, including “You Raise Me Up” and “Christmas Pipes”.

Founded in 1913 by Episcopalian missionaries, St. Paul’s Church, located in Qinhuai district began as a small chapel in Republican-era China, before its current site was established in 1922-1923. Its Gothic-style exterior sports a belfry towering high above the roof of the church, designed to mimic the look of a typical church in a small, rural, Western-European town. Its interior, however, is made up of traditional Chinese wooden structures, not the pointed arches or spires one would expect to find inside a Gothic church, which provide the internal support for the church’s main parish hall, over which ten ornate chandeliers hang.

The amalgam of Chinese and western influences in the church’s design has made it a popular sight for photos, particularly during the Christmas period, when a giant Christmas tree adorned with dazzling tinsel and baubles makes an already picturesque churchyard even more so. “This is the busiest I’ve ever seen it”, Zhou, an attendee yesterday evening, told The Nanjinger as we waited in the queue to enter the church. “I’ve been to several Christmas Eve services here at St. Paul’s but never one with a queue as long as this.”

Like its outer walls, which are made of stones taken from Nanjing’s ancient city walls, the church is inextricably linked to the city it calls home. At various times in its century-long history, its regular activities have been swept up and suspended by national and international events. Occupied by the Kuomintang’s Nationalist Army in the late 1920s, the Japanese during the Second World War and the communists during the Cultural Revolution, the church has borne witness to much of the tumultuous modern history of Nanjing.

Ernest Forster, an American missionary who worked at St. Paul’s in the late 1930s and later with the famous duo of John Magee and John Rabe to save thousands of Chinese lives during the Japanese occupation, described Nanjing at the time as, “A deserted place with only an occasional person to be seen here and there”. Japanese shells damaged the parish hall and destroyed the church’s main gate during frequent air raids.

At the end of yesterday’s service, perhaps after some final pictures with the churchyards’ many shrubs and flowers lit brilliantly in fluorescent green, churchgoers would have left the church’s grounds and returned to the far-from-deserted streets through the same main gate where once only rubble lay. An impressive white arch towers above it today, a symbol of the church’s commitment and perseverance through the years.