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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.
The blog seems to be off to a great start, and I want to thank all of you for passing this on to people who might be interested. I will be posting over the break, and hope you will use a little of your precious free time to enjoy them.
Now for your entertainment, my former students trying to sing Jingle Bells.
One of the most common questions I get is about how much I could talk about religion when I was working in the classroom. In the US there is a lot of confusion about how much religious freedom there is in China (more than you think, but less than there could be), but that is a gigantic issue. So a glimpse of this is how I teach Christmas.
Usually I split up Christmas, into two lessons, one for Santa and one for baby Jesus. This is not just because I want the students to understand that these are separate parts of the same holiday, but I really enjoy Christmas and this lets me savor it a little longer. One year I taught a song a week for the whole of December and had the students surprise my parents over skype with a mini-concert.
For the Santa Claus lesson we talk about winter sports like sledding and snowball fights, which seemed completely alien to my students in Guangxi who have never even seen snow falling, let alone have enough to play with. Then we would practice pronunciation by reading “The Night Before Christmas,” and the students would then try to draw Santa using the description in the story. They find this very difficult, since they have seen drawings of 圣诞老人(Sheng-dan-lao-ren), Christmas old man, and this is not quite the same. Finally we sing Jingle Bells. They know the tune, but the rhythm of “in a one horse open sleigh” is difficult for them to master.
Side note: The other week my wife and I heard a different problem in the muzak version the mall was playing, “Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open slee.”
There is also a Chinese version it starts:
ding ding dang (ding ding dong), ding ding dang (ding ding dong), Ling er xiang ding dang (Bells ring out the sound ding dong).
The second lesson is probably my favorite moment of the school year, teaching the amazing story of Christ’s birth, with a stunted vocabulary. I try to emphasize all of the cultural impacts that this story has. For example the students are stumped by the question “What year was Jesus born?” They look at each other as if this is the most ridiculously difficult question I have ever asked. When I finally tell them the answer, you can practically see the little light bulbs glowing over their heads and a collective “Ooooh” can be heard.
The only part that the school cares about is that I present this as a belief that some people have and not as a fact. So I can’t say, “Jesus is the son of God,” but I can say, “Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God.” This seems to be a pretty small concession in exchange for teaching this story to 700 students. I have never had any problems with the schools for teaching this lesson.
The telling of the story requires a lot of body language, flapping my arms like angel’s wings, being a pregnant woman riding a donkey (tricky), and a variety of manger animals. The students tend to enjoy the story, and find the universal appeal of the child of God being brought into the loving arms of his parents in the poorest of settings. They are shocked by the cruel king’s decree, and are on edge until Jesus and his family have safely escaped to Egypt.