The many shades of Christmas. On Christmas Eve there are Santa Clauses on Tokyo's streets and masses in Moscow. Violence still overshadows Belfast and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In Peking, a Chinese Christian quietly studies his Bible at home.
Peking While many of China's 4 million Christians flock to yuletide celebrations and candlelight masses at state-sanctioned churches, Li Rong will stay at home.
A devout Christian who refused to renounce his beliefs after the 1949 communist revolution, Mr. Li prefers to worship in his modest Peking quarters, reading a worn Chinese Bible and silently reaffirming a trust in God that has been tested brutally in his 60-odd years.
His eyes moist with tears, Li describes how his faith endured through 20 years of exile and religious persecution in a communist prison camp in China's remote western region of Xinjiang.
Freed in the early 1980s, Li speaks of his faith today with a nervous urgency. ``I am a Christian,'' he declares again and again, as if still amazed to be uttering such forbidden words. In China, there are many ``underground'' Christians like Li.
-Ann Scott Tyson Port-au-Prince, Haiti
The sun on the Caribbean-yellow, lime-green, and coral-colored buildings here always looks festive. Christmas just adds to the gaudy scene.
Candles are set out at night along busy roadways. Haitians who can afford them buy native pine branches stuck with cotton - even though deforestation has ravaged the countryside and every tree is considered a national treasure.
But the signs of Christmas are overshadowed by the political violence that has darkened life here for months. It has drained much of the joy out of Christmas, says one Haitian professional woman. She won't give presents this year, because it ``just doesn't seem appropriate.''
Danger in the streets means that many Haitian families will not return home this year for family get-togethers. The average Haitian isn't sure he'll have the money to be able to serve the traditional pumpkin soup for Christmas.
-Clara Germani Moscow
Grandfather Frost and the Snowmaiden: They are the essence and magic of Russia's winter. Feasts, fortunetelling, and mummery are the ancient ways of brightening the long darkness of December here.
With Jesus' birth now celebrated only inside churches, New Year's becomes the focus for merrymaking. The yolka, or Christmas tree, will soon start appearing in children's clubs and public places, where children will gather to meet Grandfather Frost and receive gifts.
New Year's Eve finds Russian families around the table, eating their favorite dishes - dumplings and pies with carefully prepared fillings. No one must be alone.
For children, gifts are less important than fun and games. As one woman recalls: ``My best New Year's was when my uncle came back from Germany in '47. I had a great big doll. We made my older cousin a black silk cape with material from Germany. We covered the back with silver stars and put a moon on the hood. She was 17 and going to the carnival. My mama played the balalaika and my uncle played the accordion.''
-Sophia Quinn-Judge Tokyo
Who is better known in Japan - Christ Jesus or Santa Claus?
You guessed it: Santa Claus.
Less than 1 percent of Japan's 120 million people are Christians, and Christmas is not an official holiday. But Christmas corresponds with the year-end gift-giving season. And department stores start their sales campaigns around the same time as stores in Western Europe or the United States.
Santa Clauses are everywhere. But they don't say ``Ho-ho-ho!''; they hand out ads. Stores are jammed, children stand rapt before toy counters, and ``Jingle Bells'' resounds in every conceivable version from syrup to rock.
New Year's is another matter. New Year's is a family holiday, when people who have been away all year return to their hometowns. New Year's Eve is spent at home, eating tangerines, perhaps reading aloud traditional poems. At midnight many families eat noodles as a symbol of long life.
-Takashi Oka Belfast
Belfast at Christmas is joy under the shadow of the gunman.
The colored lights on busy city thoroughfares banish the midwinter gloom. The brightly bedecked tree outside the city hall is a focus for shoppers and Christmas revelers.
Children from local churches and schools, both Roman Catholics and Protestants, sing carols, and thus demonstrate a common humanity under the same God. There is a togetherness about Christmas in Belfast of which the outside world is scarcely aware.
Belfast's lord mayor, the ebuillent Alderman Dixie Gilmore, says ``much has been heard of the political protest at British policy and of the slogan ``Belfast Says No.'' At Christmastime, the slogan is ``Belfast Says No"el.''' Yet above the hope of the Christmas carols, the din of whirring helicopters reminds everyone that terrorist danger is never far away.