Christmas In China
A last-minute weekend in Chengdu brought Little Flower and myself back to Luzhou with a suitcase full of new Christmas decorations and baking items.
To be honest, the last thing in the world I need is more Christmas stuff. Years of overseas’ living has led to me collecting holiday items to display which I feel I must have.
When I first began teaching English in China 17 years ago, visual signs of Christmas were rarely seen. Christmas was hardly spoken of, much less understood. I brought all my decorations with me, including lights, wall hangings, my crèche, and even a small boxed Christmas tree with ornaments. I made a grand showing in my two-room guesthouse accommodations on the campus of Nanchang Normal University with a dazzling window of lights and decorations that had the students clustered outside every evening, enamored by its beauty.
Christmas in China back then was definitely one of mysterious curiosity and awe.
But now, commercialism has invaded cities and towns all across the country. Christmas glitz has overtaken not only the capital city, Chengdu, but our little Luzhou’s downtown district as well. Live Santa’s greet pedestrians at our department store entrances. Internationally popular Christmas carols, in both English and Chinese, blare over loudspeakers. “Merry Christmas!” banners hang in every shop window, and sales clerks, looking chique and trendy in their Santa hats, greet shoppers flocking to Christmas sales.
Oddly enough, the majority of Chinese have no understanding of the religious significance of the day, nor do they comprehend the meaning of the season for those of us who truly celebrate it. To the Chinese, the draw is the popularity of purchasing “foreign” items, being posh enough to celebrate an international holiday, and (for shop owners) to cash in on a commercial goldmine among China’s middle to upper class consumers.
Only those of us who attend the Chinese church and are Christians truly have an understanding of the significance of this day. And because of this, it is our job to impart this same understanding to others.
At the Luzhou church, the Christmas Eve performance party, prayer services and Christmas day activities help the public grasp the religious meaning of Jesus’ birth. All are invited to attend. The church is always packed with non-believers who stop by to get a better idea about what Christians are so excited about every year come December 25th.
Christmas In The Classroom: The Religious Meaning
In my classroom, another kind of enlightenment is passed on to my own students during our Christmas lessons, which I have been doing for 20 years in an overseas’ setting.
My holiday unit is comprised of two parts: Christmas: The Religious Meaning, and Christmas: Customs and Traditions.
Last week, we spent our time with the religious story from the Bible. We go over the story outline on the board, including pertinent vocabulary words and important characters. Visual aids are a must, which include hundreds of Christmas cards that depict scenes of the birth.
Students pour over these cards in awe and delight as they are impossible to find in China. Sure, there are plenty of holiday cards to be bought in country but these are the commercialized variety with snowmen, Santa Clauses, reindeer, sleighs and Christmas trees. Religion plays no part in card-purchasing here in mainland China so there are few, if any, religious cards to be found.
When our American Christian variety finally finds its way into their hands, after we’ve gone over the story so they know what they are looking at, the beauty of Christmas cards takes on a whole new meaning.
I watch these young people pour over the cards’ pictures, eagerly passing them from one person to another. They point out the angels, the stable, Mary, Jesus, Joseph, the shepherds, and the three wisemen. They go over their new words, practicing out loud the pronunciation of Bethlehem, manger, frankincense and myrrh. Some quietly gaze at the scenes, soaking it all in and envisioning the story which has just been related to them.
My hope is that they will one day pass on this understanding to their own students, maybe even to their families during the Chinese New Year after they return home for the holidays. They might meet those who are Christians in their community and be able to share with them what their foreign teacher taught them about this special Christian day. They might even pass by a church, remember our lesson together and go in to find out more about Christianity and these people who call themselves Christians.
We’ve even had lessons where we re-enact the Christmas story, complete with props and make-shift costumes pulled out from my clothes’ stash. A bathrobe becomes Joseph’s garb. Tinsel acts as the angels’ halos. A lace tablecloth, tied back with a ribbon, graces Mary’s head. A stuffed animal wrapped in a towel becomes Jesus. Narrators don Christmas vests and innkeepers hold high lighted lanterns. Our three wisemen regally carry their gifts (a tin box, a vase, a bottle of perfume) to lay before the baby.
If you were to ever pass by our classroom at Christmastime, you’d certainly be in for a treat and a firm grounding in why Christians celebrate this day.
Christmas In The Classroom: Customs and Traditions
This week, we are fully diving into customs and traditions. Christmas symbols fill the students’ hand-out: Christmas tree, reindeer, Santa Claus, candy cane, Christmas wreath, Christmas stocking, poinsettia, and the list goes on. A bag full of the items themselves only further adds to the excitement of the classroom. During the break, these are snatched up with great enthusiasm and become immediate photo opportunities for those with cell phone cameras.
When I’m finally satisfied that we’ve gotten down both parts of the unit, it’s time to play Christmas bingo. I created this game 10 years ago, making up 30 different bingo cards with pictured symbols of our unit, both the religious and the non-religious vocabulary we had learned.
For the first game, I draw the pictures one by one from an envelope and call out the symbols. Students, working in pairs, cover the symbol’s picture called with a bit of paper. Four covered symbols in a row send students jumping to their feet, shouting, “Merry Christmas!” After checking the answers, the winning couple race to the front to receive their candy prize and take my place, now becoming the new teachers to begin a new game.
The bingo game is a new concept for the Chinese, making it even more intriguing and fun. It usually takes a few games for students to finally figure out the faster you call out the symbols, the faster someone will win, the faster you’ll get your candy and the faster another game can begin to start the process all over again.
Shouts of “Louder! Louder!”, “Say again!” and “Quickly! Quickly!” fill the room. Players repeat the words after the leaders say them. Partners correct one another when they wrongly pronounce words. Shy students become more confident as they are suddenly placed in the role of being the teacher, not the pupil, and must lead the game by themselves.
The “Merry Christmas!” bingo game is always more than just a game. For a teacher, it’s an invaluable tool that combines teaching methodology, language learning and confidence building all in one. And for the Christmas season, it’s a bearer of Christmas cheer and the festive spirit of the holidays.
What better way to end our unit!
Young Fulbright Scholars About To Arrive
If I’d had time, I would have included our usual Christmas carol singing and tree decorating but this year, I am about to receive 8 American visitors, Fulbright scholars who will be arriving at our school tomorrow. These are recent graduates from the university who are studying the Chinese educational system as Fulbright award recipients, but they are based in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a far cry from the mainland, so to experience the “real” China, they are coming here to our small school. The Amity Foundation recommended to the Hong Kong Institute of Education that these bright young people visit Luzhou because of my knowledge and involvement in the school over the past 5 years. The English Department, foreign affairs department, school administrators and I have been working very hard during the past 3 months to arrange their schedule, packed with activities and events.
We are so fortunate that they’ll be living on our campus, in the guesthouse, for an entire week. They’ll be teaching with me in the classroom, giving lectures in the evenings, eating with the students, visiting dorm rooms and spending as much contact time with our young people as possible. My students are so excited they can hardly contain themselves.
I’m guessing a lot of that energy thrown into the Christmas bingo game this week had a lot to do with the fact that so many American visitors were soon to arrive. We have never had so many overseas’ guests on our campus before. This should be a treat for everyone, including Little Flower. She loves visitors, especially because she knows she can beg a few candies off of them when they visit.
They’re arrival late tomorrow evening will be the start of a very busy week. Although it will be awhile until you next hear from me, be assured I’ll have lots of stories and pictures to share after they depart.
From Luzhou, here’s wishing you “Ping An!” (peace) for your day and Merry Christmas!