BEIJING -- A block east of the Forbidden City, Wang Da dons his Santa costume every other hour to spread cheer among customers at the six-story Sun Dong An Plaza -- one of Beijing's mammoth, modern shopping centers.
Riding the escalators in a long silver beard with bells jingling from his leather boots, he hands out purple and white balloons as well as wooden tree ornaments from a red bag slung over his shoulder.
Many of the children have no idea who Santa is and a few are frightened. Occasionally, though, one recognizes the jolly old elf. "Thank you, Old Man Christmas," says a little boy as Wang hands him a balloon.
Like so many other Western imports, Christmas has been seeping into the urban culture of this officially atheistic nation for years. Young professionals often see it as a fashionable, secular holiday, which offers a chance to send cards, give gifts and exude sophistication.
Beginning in November, the city's major department stores sell plastic trees, ornaments, Christmas lights and stockings. As Christmas approaches, the fancier hotels and Western restaurants spray fake snow on their windows and wrap their lobbies in red ribbons.
The Movenpick, a German hotel near the airport, re-creates a Swiss village complete with snow-covered, outdoor wooden chalets where guests can eat Swiss cheese fondue amid colored lights and man-made icicles.
Outside the Lan Kwai Fang Bar, named for a trendy Hong Kong restaurant district, stands an eight-foot Christmas tree made of empty Foster's beer cans. Down the block, vendors sell live trees starting at $33.
The Sun Dong An's display includes a 30-foot, wooden, German castle with red neon lights lining the spires and turrets. Near the castle walls sits a small hutch where children can play with cuddly rabbits.
'It's for children'
Wang, whose real job is promoting French wine at a Beijing nightclub called The Hot Spot, works the 8 a.m. to 2: 30 p.m. Santa shift at the request of a friend employed by the shopping center. Walking past Burberrys and McDonald's, he pats children on the head and tries to fend off aggressive shop clerks demanding balloons and ornaments.
"It's for children," a security guard, who accompanies Wang, continually reminds them.
At a women's clothing store, Wang breaks down and swaps a Santa ornament and a stack of calendar cards for two of the shop's complimentary address books filled with photos of fashion models dressed in black and gray digging fingers in their hair.
Like many of the children he meets, Wang has only a vague sense of who Santa is and no idea what the Christian holiday is about.
"I do know it's related to religion," the 25-year-old says. "People my age have little interest in religion."
A couple of miles away, on the other side of the Forbidden City, 77-year-old Du Baolu carries roses, carnations and chrysanthemums into the Cathedral of Our Savior in preparation for Christmas services that will draw standing-room-only crowds numbering in the thousands.
Our Savior is one of four Catholic cathedrals in the Chinese capital. Attendance is so heavy for midnight mass -- some come out of curiosity -- that the church hands out passes in advance to control crowds.
Du, who has attended Our Savior for 10 years, does not give gifts at Christmas or attend lavish dinners. Instead, he says, he spends his time praying to cleanse his soul and working at the church.
"The most important [things] are inside," says Du, standing before a papier-mache stable housing the Nativity scene while the Hallelujah Chorus plays on the sound system.
China first celebrated Christmas when Nestorian monks arrived nearly 14 centuries ago. Today, the government estimates that there are 4 million Catholics and 10 million to 15 million Protestants. Overseas religious groups say the number is much higher and continues to rise.
Difficulties of worship
Worshiping here has often been difficult. After the Communist crackdown on religion in the 1950s, scores of clergymen were jailed for their beliefs -- some for as long as two decades. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), thousands of churches were vandalized or boarded up and left to rot.
Today, believers can worship openly if they submit to the supervision of China's authoritarian regime, which fears any potential rival power base. On Christmas, millions will attend ceremonies in illegal "house churches." Some will risk arrest.
For members of Our Savior, the Christmas celebration revolves around the cathedral. Helping to hang lights on a fir tree in the courtyard, Li Fangyin explains that she does not so much exchange gifts with her 16-year-old daughter as take her out to buy them.
"We're not like you foreigners," says Li, 50, who works as a saleswoman at a spare machine parts factory. "We bought the gifts together, so she knows what they are."
Nor do Li and her family spend Christmas celebrating and relaxing at home. December 25th is a workday in China.
Pub Date: 12/24/98