Christmas was unique, as expected. But for being my first Christmas away from family, it didn’t bring with it the depth of sadness I anticipated. There was a bit of melancholy, for sure; my experience of the holidays is so wrapped up in traditions, places, and experiences with family and friends that a break from all of that wasn’t easy by any means. But I think we made it “work.”
For one, Joann gave up being with her family for the holidays to share Christmas with me in China; that in itself was special. Not only is it helpful to have someone witness, in person, my life and community here in China, but having someone close to me to share the holiday experience with helped prevent the loneliness that could have emerged. I know Christmas can be a great time of togetherness but that it can also, for some, magnify or expose brokenness in relationships or deepen one’s sense of loneliness. I guess I’m grateful or fortunate or whatever the right word is to have experienced the more positive side of things.
The ability to create a feeling of being at home made this Christmas a nice mix of old and new, of familiarity and novelty. Joann came bearing gifts not only from herself but from my family. She also brought decorations to adorn my fake trees with (they do sell them here) and…maybe most importantly, the pomander.
Many of you are familiar with this particular quirk of mine, but for those who aren’t I’ll explain. My mom, before I was born, acquired a “festive decorate pomander”—essentially a red, wickless candle in the form of three carolers. But the key to its importance to me is its heavenly scent. And having shared this pomander with others over the years, I can see it’s personal opinion—most are not all that impressed by the scent. It has kind of a pine smell I guess, but…well…I really don’t know how to explain it, other than that it smells like "Christmas." It’s partly the smell I love, but probably more the way I’ve been conditioned to associate that smell with memories of Christmases past. As soon as Joann revealed it to me, it went on the nightstand to keep me company over the holidays.
Actually, a lot of the gifts I received this year reveal my olfactory obsessions. My mom gave me a bar of soap clearly purchased at a bath salt store in Seattle we came across several years ago that had one particular scent—“sage”—that I loved. I received several books, which I quickly smelled. Joann gave me a near-empty bottle of her perfume to spray in the air whenever I miss her (now that I share that, I’m not so sure that’s as not-at-all-weird as it first seemed). My Grandma sent me fabric softener sheets, significant for her and I because the smell of this particular brand always reminds me of being at her house growing up (I’d leave her place with my dry clothes possessing “Grandma smell”). And Maria, one of the other American teachers here, gave me several small bottles of Bath and Body hand sanitizer (Lime Coconut Verbena being my favorite) and some vanilla scented candles.
It’s known that I’m a sucker for scents (and I’m appropriately mocked for it). I guess it’s one of many quirks. Quirks…like the used tissues that get piled up on my nightstand. Like my obsessive checking of Seattle Mariner blog sites run by stat-nerds so that I can stay updated on the latest off-season transactions. Like the fact that maybe sometimes I prefer Chris Tomlin’s version of “Where the Streets” to U2’s original (may Bono live forever). Like my dancing. Like my tendency to be a bit direct and blunt at times. Hey…I’m willing to accept you all and your quirks too.
But coming back from that bizarre digression to Christmas in Xiaogan. On Christmas Eve, Joann and I exchanged a couple gifts and watched "The Shawshank Redemption;" my rationale being, it’s about hope, as is Christmas (at least theologically, hope is pretty central). And Christmas Day was special. Continuing the tradition of my mother, I made pancakes for Joann and I…as well as maple syrup from scratch (not that hard), applesauce and eggs. And true to tradition, I made them in to particular shapes upon request. I always asked my mom to make pancakes into shapes—Mickey Mouse, a basketball, a skateboard, Ken Griffey Jr.’s head, etc. I made Joann a pancake in the shape of Princess Diana twirling.
After breakfast, we exchanged more gifts and checked our stockings. That afternoon we gathered with my fellow foreign teachers for a gift exchange, which included the singing of Christmas songs and baked Christmas goodies. The real riot was that night though, as Jeff and Karen—the Cameroonian couple—prepared us a huge meal for which they had spent all day preparing. We feasted on a variety of meats, drank champagne, sang some karaoke, and even had a mini dance-party where Joann and I had the opportunity to showcase our…talents? fervor? good intentions? silliness? Not sure how to describe our dancing; but it worked.
It felt like Christmas. Being in a relatively Christmas-less place, it helped to have like-minded people to share the season with, people with whom I could celebrate and remember the event at the root of Christmas. I think of Christmas as a time of remembrance: remembering traditions and what’s important to us, but also remembering The Story, not just in its quaintness but in all its power and beauty and mystery and meaning.
I did have a unique experience sharing this Story, which led to a “Peter moment” for me. A few days after Christmas, I spent some time telling my class the two Christmas narratives, with which they were basically unfamiliar. I first read “Twas the Night Before Christmas" and shared a bit about Santa and how that tradition developed and how it plays out at Christmas. Then I read them Luke 2 and explained a bit about the birth of Jesus and why it has mattered so much to so many people over the course of history. I was speaking fairly objectively, considering the setting; lots of “people say this” or “some believe this.” My point wasn’t to be preachy but to give a clear picture of the origins of Christmas.
There’s that interaction between Jesus and Peter where they are discussing Jesus’ significance in an impersonal sort of way, discussing what “others” say about Jesus. But then Jesus makes it personal, asking Peter: “But who do you say I am?” prompting Peter’s confession: “The Messiah of God.” And then, the way Luke tells it, Jesus kind of abruptly shuts them up, not wanting this truth to be known, at least not yet.
I wrapped up my summary of Christmas with something like “some believe Jesus was an incredible example and teacher, and others believe he was sent from God and, in some mysterious way, God Himself come to live among us.” The room was quiet for a moment. Then Catherine broke the silence with her question: “What do YOU believe?” I wonder if Peter felt something similar to what I felt right then. Catherine, and I imagine several others, were less interested in what “others" say than what I say.
Catherine made it personal, and I can’t really describe for you the poignancy of her question, of the moment. I stumbled over my words for a moment, trying to figure out how to not say too much but not say too little. My response was something like: “I believe Jesus was who he said he was; I believe the Bible depicts him accurately; I believe he was indeed significant, even that he was God with us; and if you want to talk about it more ask me later.” I felt the parallel to that scene in Luke—both the on-the-spot impersonal-turned-personal moment of confession as well as the abrupt “let’s not-talk-about-this-anymore” ending as we carried on with our lesson. I trust that I did not in fact say too much nor too little.