When I was invited to a Christmas morning service at Baiyin's only church I had doubts about accepting. To begin with I'm not a believer so it sometimes seems a little strange to go to church – but on the other hand I go for weddings and funerals so why not a Christmas service? Of course there was also the matter of needing to get up at seven thirty on Christmas day to be ready to go by eight thirty. Then there was the question of just how well religious ceremonies are accepted by the Chinese authorities. I had read articles that were some years out of date about the Baiyin police "raiding" the so-called "house churches" where people had set up chapels in their homes.
All in all there seemed to be plenty of reasons not to go.
The invitation came on Friday night and slightly circuitously. We, that is me Michael and Erika, have become friendly with a local family who have an apartment in a block just a few hundred yards away from mine. They had originally invited us a couple of months ago to spend Christmas day with them and we had accepted but on Friday afternoon I had a call from the daughter (who has today decided to change her name from the decidedly odd Elove to the rather more normal Erin) who is the only one in the family to speak reasonable English. She asked if we could change to Christmas Eve as her Uncle Ray couldn't make it on Christmas day. The trouble was we couldn't make Christmas Eve. We already had a meal arranged with the teachers from our school. Half an hour later she called back and said, "Can you make tonight?"
The restaurant was hidden away in an alley just off the main Baiyin crossroads and like a lot of Chinese establishments didn't look like much from the outside. Inside though it was great. It was decorated with Christmas trees and streamers and tinsel and it was very full.
It was a hotpot restaurant complete with its ferocious burner and bubbling cauldron of lava-like liquid in the centre of the table. With Erin's help we ordered food that didn't include mushrooms and set about our meal.
They are a nice family and good people but there is a drawback to going out to eat with them. They really do like to drink beer. And they really do like to "Gan bei". Chinese people mostly toast this way using little glasses, shot-glass size, but Erin's family prefer to use bowls which hold around a third of a pint. At each toast everyone is expected to empty the bowl completely.
I have found ways round it. I have already established that because of my great age I am unable to drink as much as they do and this time I had the added reason that I needed to work on Saturday. So, as before, I was allowed to "Sui Yi" which roughly means, drink as little or as much as I liked.
The others were not so fortunate and as the pile of empty bottles grew larger the party became drunker and louder. Remaining relatively sober I could view it all with quiet amusement which was mistaken by our hosts for wisdom. At one point Erin's father, Tom, said something to her in Chinese.
"He says that Michael is very strong and Erika is very beautiful and that he respects Bob very much."
The conversation, all through the medium of Erin, inevitably turned to Christmas traditions and when it was mentioned that many people attend church on Christmas day she said that her Grandmother was a Christian. There was some rapid conversation in Chinese followed by Tom making a telephone call. He relayed the conversation to Erin who said that her Grandmother would very much like for us to come to the service with her.
All of the reasons for not going ran through my head but what came out was, "Yes, I'd be delighted to go."
On Saturday I had two things I needed to do. First of all I had been asked by our FAO if I would help record some taped dialogues for use in student exams. After that I had my dinner arrangement.
Jane and her friend who is, confusingly, also Jane called at the apartment at three thirty and we went just a few blocks towards the city square and then turned off into one of the mazes of apartment blocks. In one we were ushered into an apartment where one of the rooms had a lot of sound equipment and a very large computer. For an hour and a half we sat reading and recording dialogues with me occasionally correcting mistakes in them. By the time I had finished everything and returned to the apartment we were ready to set off for our meal with the teachers. It was a taxi ride out to the west and the restaurant was excellent. As with Friday it was a hotpot restaurant but this one was the kind where the hot pot comes in individual pots. It had an odd arrangement of ceramic heaters built into the tables at each position – odd because these were completely covered by a table cloth that sat between heater and bowl and somehow didn't catch fire.
The meal was, as always, excellent, and the hot mulled wine that came with it was delicious. It wasn't exactly roast turkey with all the extras and the conversation, even though they were English teachers, was less than free-flowing, but it was a very nice evening which we concluded by going off to a KTV and having the traditional Chinese sing-song until almost midnight when it was time to go home.
At 7:30 my alarm woke me and I took a quick shower. Mike stuck his head out of his bedroom and announced that we would have to go without him as he had had a terrible restless night and was sure that if he went he would simply fall asleep in church.
I strolled down to meet the others.
At Erin's apartment I was met by Erin, her father and mother, her brother, her grandmother and her three year old cousin. Or they may have been some other relatives entirely. Chinese tend to play a bit fast and loose with describing family members – referring to cousins as sisters or brothers, unrelated family friends as uncles and aunts and their children as cousins. It all gets a little confusing.
In any case they were glad to see us and quickly led us to the bus stop. On the bus everyone seemed to be going to this one church. People didn't just stare, they came and talked to us in Chinese which Erin translated.
It was only a few minutes down into one of the few sections of town that I haven't yet explored and the church was an impressive, slightly blocky grey building. It was large and very clearly from its architecture a church. Outside helpers greeted us and showed us in. The huge open hall was already packed with people. A pianist was playing carols and a woman in red and white robes was singing.
We were led right to the front pews and seated. In front of us was a large stage with professional looking lighting and sound equipment. A large illuminated red cross hung on the wall behind it.
More and more people crushed in. Two rows of seats were added in front of us leaving only the narrowest of paths in front of the stage. The congregation were noisy but settled down when the pastor appeared on the stage. He read what must have been a prayer given the frequency of "Amens" that it produced. Then he introduced a choir who came up onto the stage and stood on the banked rows at the back to render "Oh come all ye faithful" in Chinese. They followed it up with a host of other tunes, both familiar and new and then left the stage. A new figure appeared – an elderly man in a purple cardigan carrying a very well worn bible.
He started to read. And read. And read. And read. It went on for about twenty minutes and must have been suitably uplifting for those who understood Chinese. For my part I amused myself playing peek-a-boo with the three year old cousin and giving English names to her and to Erin's brother – Becky and Josh (I decided that as we were in church the short forms of Rebecca and Joshua would be appropriate).
When he finally finished I thought it would be over. How wrong can you be?
Another choir came on and sang a song. Then there were dancers. More singers. More dancers in a very long procession. Two and a half hours passed quite quickly as the colourful parade of carol singers and nativity performers continued. Several times one of the church wardens came and asked the family if Erika and I wanted to sing. We kept politely refusing until it became obvious that "No" simply wasn't permitted.
Forced to perform we went for the song that both of us have been teaching our classes all week – the seasonal, but not exactly spiritual, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Half the hall exploded with flashbulbs as we went on stage and afterwards the other half wanted their pictures taken with us. The service was, by then, over apart from a distribution of food gifts to everyone packages containing bread and eggs and a kind of sour packaged snack. We left the hot room to go out into the refreshingly cold street and catch the bus back.
It had proven to be a very satisfying and entertaining way to spend Christmas morning. I shall certainly make appoint of not turning down any invitations.
Which reminds me, next Saturday I am going to a wedding. It should be interesting.