Fewer than one in 20 Taiwanese is Christian, yet the religion is accepted as part of mainstream society thanks in large part to the medical and educational work done by Western missionaries since the 1860s. Several of the country’s high schools and universities were established by missionaries, as were a number of major hospitals.
The best known of these religious pioneers was George L. Mackay, a Presbyterian minister who arrived in Taiwan at the end of 1871 and spent the next three decades planting churches and pulling teeth (he was a semi-trained yet skilled dentist). His 1896 book, From Far Formosa, will fascinate anyone with an interest in the Taiwan of old, and the mindset of a missionary untroubled by political correctness and utterly convinced he represented the one true faith. Most Taiwanese are familiar with Mackay’s name because his obvious love for Taiwan, as well as his progressive-for-the-era belief in racial equality, has earned him a place in primary school textbooks.
Christmas Day isn’t a proper public holiday, but it used to be. Until several years ago, everyone got the day off because December 25 was the anniversary of the passing of the Constitution of the Republic of China in 1946. However, when the government mandated a two-day weekend for everyone, Constitution Day was one of a number of national holidays to get the axe. In 2016, the day will be a holiday for blue-collar workers only.
Despite the lack of Christians, the fact people have to work on December 25, and the likelihood that many folks are looking ahead to and saving their money for the Chinese Lunar New Year (which always falls between January 22 and February 19), there’s a surprising amount of Christmas spirit in Taiwan. Shop workers often wear Santa hats, and many businesses put up Christmas bunting. Taiwanese under the age of 20 account for most of the Christmas cards bought and sent; the giving of gifts is becoming more popular; and you’ll hear Christmas carols playing in department stores and other places.
Because the majority of Taiwan’s indigenous people are Christian, the best place to enjoy heartfelt Christmas celebrations are aboriginal villages such as those in Pingtung County or near Taroko Gorge.
For Western tourists, Christmas is a fine time of year to visit. Not only are temperatures comfortable and summer’s typhoons a distant memory, there’s little difficulty booking hotel rooms or railway tickets. High in the mountains, it can get chilly at night, but there’s no better time of year to watch the sun rise. Meanwhile, in the lowlands, it’s often warm enough to warrant a mid-afternoon bowl of shaved ice, malt sugar, peanuts and sweet glutinous rice balls.
If a traditional Christmas feast is important to you, browse the websites of the bigger hotels, as several have a special menu for the season. Even though they have to work as usual, and don’t have a present-filled stocking to look forward to, many Taiwanese will still make a point of greeting foreign visitors with an amiable, “Happy Christmas!”