For a single young man, Christmas is an occasion where you show up somewhere and somebody gives you things you really need -- maybe some socks and underwear and a sweater -- and a great home-cooked meal. Perhaps I paint with too broad a brush here -- perhaps there are young men who are in demand as Christmas party guests because they know how to make killer pecan pie -- but I think it's generally true, for all young people. They aren't yet parents or grandparents, where the pleasure of Christmas lies, in large part, in making a memorable occasion for someone else...
Well, here in China, I'm the one sitting back while delicious meals appear. Sure, our actual Christmas dinner consisted of a small burger at Burger King before we hustled off to do another Christmas party/lesson with the kids, but we were invited out for Christmas Eve dinner, and Boxing Day lunch and dinner.
In other words, I know that Christmas doesn't magically appear, it's something that you make, and it takes a lot of forethought and effort. It should be possible to make Christmas in China -- after all China is now the world's biggest producer of Christmas decorations, isn't it? But it can take a lot more time and money to assemble those ingredients which we consider essential for a proper Christmas, whether you're talking about turkey, nutmeg, or reindeer candy canes. Last year in China, Ross and I couldn't even source candy canes. But a Chinese friend helped us get some on the internet for this year. We spotted the googly eyes and the pipe cleaners at a market in Shanghai. I think I brought the red puffy noses with me from Canada, and voila, we did reindeer candy canes with four classes of kids this week. Plus we taught them to sing 12 Days of Christmas. The older kids got Good King Wenceslaus as well.
The Chinese have developed their own Christmas tradition of giving apples in cute little gift boxes because "apple" in Chinese means "the fruit of being safe" and Christmas Eve is referred to as "safe and peaceful night." (That link takes you to a lovely Chinese candlelight church service, singing "Silent Night, Holy Night," in Mandarin.) My students have gifted me with a lot of cards and apples. That's another thing about Christmas in China, our Chinese friends are so solicitous about the fact that we are away from our families and they make a point of wishing us Merry Christmas.
The Chinese use big inflatable arches to decorate for weddings or business openings. These arches are red, of course, and decorated with phoenixes and dragons and "double happiness" signs. This one is even flanked with two big inflatable lions. I'm sure that these are just rented as needed and set up by rental companies. I think that this kind of thing could catch on in the West as well. I can picture arches for welcoming home a new baby, for example.
Everybody had a great time at this banquet, which featured the kids doing little plays and singing songs in English. They did "Snow White" and "Robin Hood" and there were door prizes and little candy canes and, as Ross pointed out to me, not a single kid got over-stimulated and had a tantrum melt down.
Thanks to Skype, you could be living in China and take your usual place at the table back home, albeit in laptop or tablet form, while the family gathers to say grace, eat dinner and sing Christmas carols. But, I'll grant you, you can't actually taste the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes or your mom's gravy.
Another admitted drawback to Christmas in China is that December 25th is not a public holiday. But we enjoy having our own Christmas Eve a day ahead of our relatives, and visiting them on Skype while they have theirs, and so on, so it must be acknowledged that Christmas can happen whenever we want it to happen. In fact, the holiday tune I've been humming most frequently this season, is We Need a little Christmas. The tune was originally from the musical Mame but it also opens the 1987 Muppet Family Christmas Special, which I've watched about four times this season because of the memories it brings. Careful of the icy patch!
So we are far away from home and our two sons this year, but I have Christmas Past to remember. Christmas Present has its own very different charms. I've been in China long enough to not be startled when a Chinese boy starts doing break dancing, but when I see waiters wearing Santa hats and hear "Jingle Bells" playing on the loudspeakers and see families able to enjoy themselves in this way, I always spare a thought for the late Chairman Mao: You lost, you totalitarian bastard, you lost, and commerce won. Peace on earth and good will towards man won. Go ahead and spin in your mausoleum, you jerk.
Christmas Future, deo volante, will see our family gathered together again under one roof. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to readers of this blog and we hope you're having a blessed holiday season.