"Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).
Beijing (CNN) -- Inside Beijing's Immaculate Conception Cathedral more than 1,000 parishioners gather to say mass.
A young Chinese priest conducts the service, which is punctuated by hymns and Christmas carols sung by a choir. The priest enjoins the congregation to "pray for the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI and the Chinese bishops."
It is a stark change from Chairman Mao's time in the 1960s and '70s, when religion was banned in China as the "opiate of the people" and Christmas was taboo.
In the early 1980s, years after Mao died, the government began loosening its religious restrictions. Back then, some Catholic friends and I would bike to Immaculate Conception for midnight mass. At the gate, wary church officials screened people who wished to enter.
Inside the dimly lit 400-year-old church, an elderly priest said the mass in Latin. A choir sang "Silent Night" in Chinese. "Shengdan kuaile!" (Merry Christmas!) I greeted some of those around me. They gave me blank stares, nervous about worshipping publicly.
Now, celebrating Christmas has become one of the biggest commercial holiday seasons in Chinese cities.
At the Scitech shopping mall in central Beijing, a four-meter high Christmas tree, adorned in multi-colored tinsel topped with a gold star, stands in the parking lot.
Department stores and restaurants are festooned with Christmas decor and trinkets. Shop assistants wearing Santa Claus hats greet customers with a bow. Decals of a portly, white-bearded man -- the Shengdan Laoren (Santa Claus) -- bedeck shop windows.
China's young and savvy consumers have turned Christmas into a lucrative business.
Christmas shopping has been so frenetic that in Chengdu, Taobao and Alibaba, two of China's biggest online trading companies, grossed 90 million yuan ($13.5 million) in three days leading up to Christmas, according to the Sichuan Daily.
But what does Christmas mean to the Chinese?
"It's a festival in the West, right?" surmised Zhao Jing, a young salesgirl, who hails from rural Shanxi province.
"I know it's the birthday of Jesus Christ, as written in the Bible," said a middle-aged Beijing woman, surnamed Chen, as she shopped for a New Year's gift for her husband.
And the Shengdan Laoren? "He brings gifts, like candies and toys," gushed a boy with his mother on a shopping trip.
Do they see the meaning of "Christ" in Christmas?
A 19-year-old churchgoer, Joseph Min, said he does. "My parents are Catholics," he said. "But I did not realize the meaning of religion and Christmas until I heard missionaries talk about them when I attended a summer camp in junior high."
The college student says most of his classmates do not know anything about religion.
"Most youths are lost in the wave of social changes," he said. "But many are curious, seeking a kind of religion or philosophy in life."
Religion has traditionally been an important aspect of Chinese life. Despite the efforts of the Communist Party to wipe out organized religion since it took power in 1949, many people have clung to their beliefs. The government now recognizes five main religions: Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, Protestantism and Catholicism.
China maintains control over religious affairs through the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), a government agency. The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), established by the government in 1957, supervises the mainland's Catholics and ensures the churches are loyal to the state.
"Supervision by local police and government authorities is tight," said a researcher on Catholics in China, who requested anonymity because commenting on religious issues remains a sensitive matter. "But there are many Catholic groups who practice actively in towns and cities. One group practices on the ground, working with the CPCA, and another meets in so-called underground house churches."
China is home to more than six million Catholics, according to a report approved at the 8th National Congress of Chinese Catholics in early December, the China Daily said.
But more could be practicing in the "house churches", which remain underground out of fear of harassment or arrest. These churches sprang up after the Communist takeover in 1949, when the government mandated registration of all religious organizations, according to the researcher.
He said there is a third group: Catholics who have emerged from underground churches and work with the CPCA -- but who remain loyal to Rome. "They say they are just tired of practicing underground, achieving little," he said. "They are more pragmatic."
Beijing and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951 but efforts are under way to reconcile differences.
Beijing allows Chinese Catholics to accept the Pope's spiritual leadership, but insists that Rome makes concessions, too.
"The Vatican must sever so-called diplomatic ties with Taiwan and not interfere in China's internal affairs," said Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.
That includes control over the ordination of Chinese bishops. In a few cases in recent years, China has ordained bishops without the pope's blessing. The Holy See views such moves as a breach of the church's norms and a challenge to papal authority.
In November 2010, relations were further strained when the CPCA again appointed a bishop without the Holy See's approval.
Last week, relations worsened further when the Vatican criticized China's election of senior members of China's official Catholic Church.
"The persistent desire to control the most intimate area of citizens' lives, namely their conscience, and to interfere in the internal life of the Catholic Church does no credit to China," the Vatican said in a statement. "On the contrary, it seems to be a sign of fear and weakness rather than of strength."
China has fired back. On December 23, a spokesman for SARA blamed the Vatican for damaging China-Vatican relations, dismissing its statement as very imprudent and ungrounded, Xinhua News Agency reported. The spokesman accused the Holy See of seeking to push political ideology through religious belief.
But the festering Vatican-China rift has hardly dampened the festive mood.
Years ago, Christmas was anathema to China. I could only celebrate it at home with a few close friends.
This time, I expect to celebrate it with relish, with my family and the local community. After a Christmas dinner, we may go to the Immaculate Conception church for the traditional midnight mass, as I did in the 1980s.
This time, when I greet people "shengdan kuaile!" I expect to get back not blank stares but warm smiles and handshakes.