Thousands of Chinese jammed Beijing churches and danced at hotel discos Saturday night to celebrate Christmas Eve, offering prayers and joyfully singing carols once outlawed in the officially atheist nation.

Crowds of holiday churchgoers packed the capital's six major Protestant churches and nine area Catholic cathedrals and churches to welcome "shengdanjie," Christmas. Tens of thousands were expected to take part.The holiday has drawn increasingly large crowds as a slow revival of religious observance has grown in communist China, where religion was banned during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and thousands of churches, Buddhist temples and mosques were ransacked.

The government has since the late 1970s been more tolerant, but restricts religion tightly to state-approved associations and forbids "interference" from worldwide church organizations.

In a downtown Protestant church, festooned with colorful tinsel, a robed choir led more than 1,500 worshippers in belting out Chinese renditions of "Joy to the World" and other holiday hymns at the close of an evening service.

"I just began coming to church last year," said a 58-year-old housewife afterward. "My daughter reads me the bible, and I believe in God. To me, Christmas means happiness."

Several hotels offered Christmas Eve parties where hundreds of Chinese ate, drank and danced to disco music.

Thousands of other people jammed around Catholic cathedrals for midnight mass. The crush was so great last year that pews in one major church were damaged, and authorities said they would try to discourage non-Catholics from attending.

Chinese churches have been packed at Christmas and Easter with some people seeking to fill a spiritual void left by the decline of Maoist zeal, once a virtual religion, under a decade of economic and political liberalizations.

Still, the curious and the party-seekers outnumbered the devout. The popularity of Christmas in China is largely due to the rarity of festivals.

Along with secular parties and gift-giving, Chinese have taken to exchanging Christmas cards, with sales estimated in the millions.

"People do not believe in God," noted the China Youth News, a Beijing daily, in a Christmas Eve article. "But they have spent so many spring festivals (Chinese new year) that they want to change their taste to a foreign festival, a new experience."