Celebrating Christmas in Hong Kong

Christmas in ‘Asia’s World City’ is a celebration like no other.

(photo: Tomek Grodecki)

Did you know that Christmas didn’t find its place amid the first Christian traditions? It wasn’t until the fourth century that the festival started to be officially celebrated by the Church. Now, it can be found in nearly every corner of the world, including “Asia’s World City.”

When many people think of Christmas, they imagine white streets, full of snow, even though it is unclear whether there was snow in Bethlehem at the first Christmas. I found no snow in Hong Kong.
Neon crosses, church gardens and parishes that look like castles — Christmas in Hong Kong is a celebration like no other.

It all started at the airport. When I arrived, I saw a Christmas tree. Then, in a shopping mall, I saw lots and lots of Christmas decorations, even though only 16% of Hong Kong residents are Christian. “It’s all about selling goods,” my guide explained of the commercial aspect of the season. “It starts in November.” Living in Europe, I know Christmas marketing well.

This could be a sad metaphor for the age of globalization, but I quickly discovered that, for many locals, Christmas means something deeper. I had the opportunity to ask some questions of Neo, a young citizen of Hong Kong. “Hong Kong people go to see attractions like Harbour City, Victoria Harbour ... and [they] start a countdown to Christmas Eve. [They] take pictures, have a Christmas meal with family or friends. … Some give free hugs on the street (of course, not this year),” he explained of the cultural celebrations.

COVID-19 has changed these Christmas celebrations; many are canceled. Catholic observance will be different this year, too.

This prospect saddens Maryknoll Father Michael Sloboda, an assistant parish priest of Rosary Church, Kowloon. “We probably will not have Christmas [Mass] in 2020,” he told me. “Due to the pandemic, we did not have Ash Wednesday, Easter or Pentecost — no services in any church. It looks like Christmas [liturgies] will be canceled, as well. A few people wearing face masks will pray in the church, far apart from each other.”

Rosary Church is castle-like in appearance, with its Gothic architecture. Traveling under a tight schedule, it was impossible for me to see it from the inside, but the Christmas decorations were beautiful.
Rosary Church is celebrating a major milestone this year: It has just turned 115 years old. To commemorate this anniversary, the priests prepared a special surprise: “two new statues,” according to Father Sloboda. “Look above the altar and see two saints who are kneeling below Baby Jesus and his Holy Mother,” he encourages visitors. “On your left is St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominicans. He promoted the Rosary. On your right is Catherine of Siena. She was a single woman, a mystic and quite outspoken, in an age when almost every woman either got married and or else became a nun.”
“Notice the light: It’s brightest on the faces of Our Lord and his Mother. The two saints below ... play secondary roles in the big picture. … They do not need to be the focus of attention. What about ourselves?” he posited.

The Maryknoll priest summed up his thoughts by looking ahead. “On Saturday, Oct. 3, 2105, Rosary Church will celebrate its 200th anniversary. That’s only 85 years from now. … The important thing is not how long we will live on earth, but what we will do while we are in this world to prepare for eternal life in heaven.”

That is indeed something to ponder as we celebrate the King of Heaven this Christmas.

Tomek Grodecki is a freelance writer who contributes to Aleteia and popular-culture media. Besides writing, he sings in the Warsaw Boys’ and Men’s Choir. Special thanks to Krzysztof Kietzman for editing assistance.

HK Airport
Stylized Christmas tree decoration in the Hong Kong airport(Photo: Tomek Grodecki)