Christmas is big business in China - even during the global economic slowdown.
What was once simply a foreign affair has not just grown in popularity, but morphed into a festival with Chinese characteristics.
So many worshippers and visitors crowded the Northern Church, also known as the Xishiku Catholic Church, in west Beijing on Christmas Eve that traffic controls were needed.
Wang Peng, 29, a stock broker, has experienced the festival in the church for the fourth year.
Although not a Catholic, he said the church is the best place to feel the spirit of Christmas and get a taste of different culture.
"You go to a library to read books and to a church to spend Christmas," said Wang, who attended the 5-pm Mass yesterday.
"More people are coming here. They might not be religious people; they are here to relax and meet friends."
Yan Yan, a 30-year-old marketing director in Beijing, said: "It is a festival to hang out with friends and have lots of fun."
Yan started decorating her apartment days ago with a tree, Santa toys and candles.
She has planned a Chinese-style party for 15 friends to celebrate the biggest Western festival of the year.
For urban Chinese under 35, Christmas is about expressing themselves, said Dai Wenming, a cultural critic in Shanghai.
Chinese consider Spring Festival as a family reunion and see Christmas more as a time to hang out with friends, Dai said.
"Young people think it is very fashionable," said Sun Jing, a 19-year-old student who lives in Beijing. "Last year my friends went to KTV."
This year her teacher has organized a party for her class.
In downtown Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, department stores and restaurants were festooned with big snowy festival decorations; and yesterday, people were busy shopping at discount prices and eating out.
"We sold out 20 tables for the 218-yuan ($32) meal two days ago," said a manager surnamed Chen with Grandma's Kitchen, an American home-style restaurant in Beijing. Most of their customers on Christmas Eve were Chinese.
"A young couple celebrated the day as another Valentine's day. It is supposed to be very romantic."
Despite the gloomy economic outlook, Christmas is still a time for celebration for expatriates.
"The bad economy won't affect my shopping because I don't think we've been affected in Beijing, except maybe a bit with the exchange rate," said Euryale Chatelard from France, who works for a French bank in Beijing.
"We just moved into a new apartment. We will spend a bit on some nice furniture, and that will be our Christmas treat," said Fanny Landreu.
Landreu plans to be more practical about gift-giving this year, but said her family never goes overboard on presents for their kids at Christmas, even when the times are good.
"Things (for expats) will largely continue as normal," he said.
Daniel Vincent contributed to the story
(China Daily December 25, 2008)