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Christmas in the Chinese countryside

Being thousands of miles away from home isn’t exactly how most people picture celebrating Christmas. In fact, it’s a holiday that can be pretty hard to enjoy without family.

So, like many expats, I did my best to recreate the Christmas experience with my students and co-workers. For the four weeks leading up to the holiday, we spent the last 10 minutes of every class practicing a few festive songs. I think for the most part the students enjoyed the challenge, and the rest liked having the time to make noise.

Finally, on Christmas day, we made a call from the classroom to my grandparent’s house where my whole family was and surprised them with a seasonal medley. It was a moment I’ll never forget; 30 students huddled around a microphone, trying their best to get through Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, and Frosty the Snowman. I swear I could hear my grandmother smiling on the other end of the line.

In the countryside, it was easy to get away from the commercial season that Christmas has become in the West and in China’s urban areas. We focused instead on the festive spirit that comes with the joyous birth of Jesus Christ, although the students mostly focused on the first part (My post on Teaching Christmas to Communists).

Teaching in rural China was one of the happiest times in my life, but the students all realized that Christmas was hard for me. So on Christmas Eve, they surprised me with this video to cheer me up. It made the thousands of miles of separation from the life I formally knew completely worthwhile.

I hope you and your families have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, or any other holiday you might celebrate. If you aren’t religious, I hope you will still take a moment to stop and appreciate the wonderful gift that family is.

-Tom

Santa Claus is coming to town?

Christmas in China is a really funny thing. Let’s call it 奇怪(qi-guai), a word that means “strange” but without any negative or positive connotations. You get a full month for quiet reflection, but miss all of the fun and merriment of the Christmas spirit. There are friends you spend special meals with, and there is still some shopping you have to do. After four years, I’m still not sure if I like it or dread it.

Christmas is still kind of new in China. During the missionary period up to the revolution Christmas was a quiet religious holiday. The hospital and local universities had many special Christmas performances to try and spread the Gospel. Then President Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Madame Soong, attended many of these events at the Ginling Girls School, where Minnie Vautrin served in the 30’s and 40’s.

Today Christmas has returned, but more in shopping malls and fancy restaurants than in the hospital or schools (I’ve had to remind them a few times which day it is). It is interesting to see what a holiday looks like in its early stages before the traditions are really in place.

In the malls here Christmas decorations have been up for almost a month now, which seems to be a little late compared to shopping centers in the US, but it will be another full month before those decorations will come down. One gets the feeling that many of the people don’t really know when Christmas is, and that Santa is just a winter thing that goes with Frosty the Snowman. Christmas in some ways has started to mark the early part of preparing for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), much like the day after Thanksgiving is the time to put up the Christmas tree, and New Years is the day to take it down in the US.

Also sometimes people will try to emulate the American traditions, for example the other day one of my students/co-workers gave me a very nice Christmas card. The outside was decorated beautifully and when I returned to my office I eagerly opened it to see what kind words she had written inside. I was baffled by what I saw inside, nothing. She had simply given me a blank card for Christmas. Somewhere along the line one of our traditions seems to have been misunderstood in a big way.
Another thing that makes Christmas feel a bit off here in China is that everyone will be working on the 25th. Only foreign teachers are granted the day off, for some reason Christmas hasn’t made the Communist Party’s official list of holidays yet (an omission surely worthy of a place on Santa’s naughty list).

Then this morning, as I waited for the bus, a woman was handing out papers to everyone with some very basic information about Christianity with a brief introduction to the Christmas story. Only a few people took time to read them, but it was encouraging to see.