Though fewer than 5% of Taiwanese people are Christian, and Christmas Day itself is a regular work and school day, Christmas and the build-up to it are big especially in the towns and cities.
Most people in Taiwan associate the period with a visit to the shopping malls, which are decorated with lights and festive trees, having a photo taken amid the decorations, and shopping for ‘bargains.’ However, the small Christian minority, affirmed in their identity amid a sense of community and joy, make a big effort, emphasising not the commercial side or the presents but the celebration of the birth of Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life for believers.
Christmas preparations began in early December when we decorated the church and put up the lights and a crib. Many of our non-Christian neighbours and friends come along to see and they join parishioners in our main celebrations on Christmas Eve. Attended by about 100 people, these begin with a Christmas concert in the evening, organized by young people who study English in our church and who will have rehearsed songs in English. A saxophone band leads the music and dance, and children recount the story of the birth of Jesus. Christmas Mass follows. Later, and to great delight, Santa Claus arrives with gifts and sweets for the children.
On Christmas Day, those not at work on the day or who are retired come for Mass. At lunch my mother’s homemade Christmas cake – all the way from Cork – is usually in much demand!
Having first spent a Christmas in Taiwan over 20 years ago, I look forward to a time that, though busy with prison ministry etc., is one of celebration and communion within our parish community and with our non-Christian neighbours and friends. Free of the dreaded ‘Christmas rush’ or any pressure to buy presents, our Christian family can take to heart the angel’s words:
I proclaim to you news of great joy that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David a saviour has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.
*Ordained in 1997, Fr. O’Leary is the leader of the Spiritan community in Taiwan/Vietnam.
From Cork, he has also served in a west Dublin parish and on the leadership team in Ireland.