“Sort of” meaning that Christmas here doesn’t quite have the fanfare it would were I home in the States. No Christmas TV specials to watch, no houses decorated with Christmas lights to admire, no egg nog to be found, no visit to The Grotto this year, no family to share the season with.
But that doesn’t mean there are hints of it here. I walked passed an American food restaurant (KFC-ish) today that had a couple pictures of Santa Claus posted in the windows. I was also able, after a long walking quest across Xiaogan, to find a miniature (fake) Christmas tree for my home. I’ve found lights too, and have decorated my room a bit. And in a few short hours, Joann will be here to share the holidays with me (sure to have pictures to show and plenty to say about this in the weeks ahead).
I’ve also been teaching my students Christmas songs, bringing my guitar to class occasionally and doing some sing-along’s while also explaining the English. Though, it seems that explaining the meaning of Christmas songs is much more challenging then explaining how to talk about what you did last weekend or how to describe a friend’s appearance or whatever particular English lesson we’re on that week. For example, it’s not really common speech to say “Gloria in excelsis Deo” or “don we now our gay apparel.” It becomes a lesson in Latin and in outdated words whose meanings have changed over time. Most of the students know at least the tune to Jingle Bells if not all the words, so we sing that one a lot.
But everyone knows about Christmas here and does celebrate it to some extent—though I’m still learning how extensive that awareness is. They know something about Santa Claus, and something about Jesus, but mostly I think they just have images in their mind, not stories—trees, presents, lights, snow, maybe the baby Jesus. But I’m still figuring this out.
They do have a fun Christmas tradition here involving apples. Apparently the Chinese word for “apple” is very similar to the word for “be safe” or “be at peace” or something like that. So everyone stocks up on apples just before Christmas, then gives them to their friends as a gesture of goodwill. How wonderful is that?! What a neat way to express the spirit of Christmas.
The spirit of Christmas being peace, or giving, or generosity, or togetherness? I’m not making a statement, just genuinely asking because I’m not sure what the agreed-upon way of articulating it actually is. Seems like you'd probably get different answers from different people. If we’re going theological, I suppose it has to do with self-giving, self-emptying, sacrifice, seeking peace and reconciliation, hope—all words that seek to capture the significance of God-become-man and/or what we tend to think God hoped for in entering our world. If we’re talking about our experience of the holidays year-to-year, maybe the spirit of Christmas is something like nostalgia, togetherness, thoughtfulness toward others, celebration. (Or things like consumerism or commercialism, as Charlie Brown has attempted to show us.)
Whatever that spirit is, I suppose we all know it, and maybe can’t articulate it in a word but know it when we feel it. I think it’s probably all those things for me, because it feels like Christmas when I look at lights and am reminded of childhood; when I sing “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” and feel the power and richness of those words and the truth they imply; when I receive something somebody bought for me because, well, I'm human I guess and enjoy "stuff;" or when I think of how excited I am to go load up on apples for the 50 or 60 (or more) students whom I want to bless by showing them not only that they matter to me but that the distinct way in which they express such appreciation for one another matters to me as well. I think all of that probably fits into the Christmas spirit.
Also, I’ve been warned to buy my apples early, since stores mark up the price in the days leading up to Christmas. I have plenty of friends here, so plenty of apples to buy. I’m on a homemade applesauce kick lately, so maybe I’ll make this instead as my own unique twist to the tradition here.
One other awkward-turned-funny moment regarding Christmas. I was chatting with some students about my own Christmas traditions and explaining the part about going to church on Christmas Eve to remember the birth of Jesus. I asked for clarification’s sake if they knew to whom I was referring, and most of them nodded. One girl said something like “yeah, and Jesus killed…that’s Easter, right?” I nodded in affirmation, but Angel—another girl present who I know to be a Christian and whose English name truly fits her personality—responded with something like “no, not Jesus killed.” I looked at her a bit puzzled. She looked slightly nervous and uncomfortable, and then told us “at church they tell us not to say ‘Jesus killed.’”
I was so perplexed, and kept probing to understand her meaning in case I was missing something. I insisted that no, Jesus was indeed killed later in life and assured her it’s very well-documented. She kept shaking her head, seeming frustrated, but I figured mostly that she couldn’t articulate her point in English. She told us to move to another topic, and at that point I thought maybe she was hesitant to talk about her faith. But I was so confused, thinking maybe her church was preaching a different Christian story than the one I’m familiar with.
So about twenty minutes later, after the other students had left, I took Angel aside to ask her once more for clarification about what she was saying (or trying to say). Finally, clarity came. She told me that the girl in our conversation who’d said “Jesus killed” was wrong; in fact “Jesus WAS killed,” Angel said. It was an issue of grammar, not faith or historical fact. Her pastor told her to say that Jesus WAS killed, I guess to make sure that Angel didn’t preach a gospel that made Jesus out to be a murderer himself. Man, did I have a good laugh about that one. I should start making a list of all these language-related misunderstandings.