English schoolteacher Miss Wang recently asked her class of eight and nine-year-old students to name the biggest Chinese festival. They were stumped. So Wang asked if they knew when the Chinese celebrate the spring festival or lunar New Year.
"December 25!" replied the students who identified with Christmas but not the traditional Chinese spring festival celebrated with a weeklong national holiday, firecrackers and family reunions around February.
Every day this season, Beijingers ask me if I'm going home for sheng dan jie - Christmas - and look dazed when I explain that I celebrate Diwali, a festival they have not heard of. "To the Chinese, all foreigners speak English and celebrate Christmas," Wang explained.
Practising Christians constitute only 23 million or 1.8 per cent of the 1.3 billion population of officially atheist China, where churches must be government-backed. Christmas is not a national holiday in the nation that makes the world's stuffed Santas and Christmas trees, but as a tourist this month you'd never guess that. Since November, giant artificial Christmas trees were planted in urban high-rises, offices, malls and shops.
Even hot pot restaurants are booked for Christmas dinners served by staff in Santa hats. Retail marketing targets the 1980s first-rich generation while branding Christmas as a trendy western lifestyle of gift giving and eating out.
Official figures estimate that 73.4 per cent of Chinese Christians are post-1993 converts to the religion, compared to 5.7 per cent who converted from 1966 to 1981.
It's a statistic at odds with Beijing's war of words with the Vatican over Chinese state controls on churches.
Xinhua reported today that a church will be built in Qufu, the birthplace of Chinese philosopher Confucius. Chinese citizens raised as atheists are turning to religion for spiritual recourse to cope with career challenges - and even the government bulldozer. "Zhang Shuping's five sq m house was levelled in 2008, and she and her son have not received compensation. In desperation, they went to church," said the Xinhua report.