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Teaching Christmas to communists

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:

叮叮当,叮叮当,铃儿响叮当

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.

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.

Christmas in China

This weekend I visited the local mall, and attended a Christmas worship service. As you can see Christmas is coming in China, and will be the theme of the posts this week. I hope all of you will be spending the holidays with the ones you love.

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The video below was taken at a local Chinese church, with performance from choirs from both of the large local churches, and the church wind ensemble.