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How Christmas was Celebrated in Ancient China

Christmas is a significant holiday season in the world. To honor the birth of Jesus Christ, the great majority of churches and Christians organize celebrations on Christmas. Perhaps a common misconception is that Chinese people started celebrating Christmas when Christianity was introduced to contemporary China. In reality, churches were already celebrating Christmas throughout the Tang Dynasty.

The Syrian missionary Alopen arrived in Chang’an in the year 635 AD. As part of his open policy to “demonstrate foreign religious teachings,” Emperor Taizong of Tang dispatched the then-cabinet Prime Minister Fang Xuanling to “welcome Alopen in the western suburbs as a VIP delegate,” ushering in the first stage of the Nestorian church’s expansion in China. Since then, missionaries have traveled to China to encourage the spread of the gospel. 

Christmas festivities and church ceremonies were absolutely necessary as the Nestorian church expanded in China during the Tang Dynasty. On Christmas Day, Emperor Tang Daizong donated provisions for the churches’ worship services, showing his support for Nestorianism. Among Tang Dynasty emperors, this was uncommon. Some theorize that his early experiences may have played a role in this. 

A Nestorian preacher named Yisi accompanied the renowned General Guo Ziyi during the chaotic treason of An & Shi. Yisi received a purple cloak from the emperor for his assistance in Guo Ziyi’s efforts to quash the treason attempt.

Guangping King served as a marshal in the battle for the liberation of Chang’an and Luoyang under Tang Daizong’s rule. General Guo Ziyi was in charge of the major forces at the time. Although there is no proof that the subordinates of Tang Daizong and Guo Ziyi knew Yisi, some believe that it’s possible that Tang Daizong encouraged the Nestorians by giving them Christmas presents since they had succeeded in suppressing the treachery and gained the emperor’s gratitude.

Christmas celebrations under the Tang Dynasty should have been highly somber, as this was a crucial aspect of the churches in Asia. However, there isn’t enough convincing historical data to support this. Perhaps additional archeological findings will emerge in the future that will help us understand the Tang Dynasty Christmas.

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