All last week, I was loaded down on my trips to teach — a bulging book bag slung over my shoulder, a bamboo rod in one hand and a small suitcase in tow in the other.
“Connie, where are you going? Home for Christmas?” my colleagues kept asking as they saw me trudge to class early every morning, then begin dragging my haul up 4 flights of stairs to my classroom.
“No, just starting up Christmas lessons!” I laughed.
And what a start up it was!
Due to the increase in Christmas interest and celebrations in China, it’s important for my students to understand the significance of our Christian holiday. Thus my 3-week holiday unit, which began in full December 7.
Quite a few elementary schools and college campuses across the country have Christmas parties, full of dancing, games and singing performances around glittering Christmas trees. Individuals dressed like Santa Claus toss candy to crowds gathered outside of major department stores or pose for pictures with little children as a shoppers’ gimmick.
In other words, Christmas commercialism has hit China in a major way.
But when it comes to understanding why there is a celebration, most Chinese have not a clue what it’s about. The Chinese Christian community understands, of course, but the average Chinese person just thinks it’s the Christian’s New Year.
Since I teach English business majors, tourism majors and education majors, it’s vital that they get a firm grounding on exactly what the religious part of December 25th is all about. Side-stepping this would only help to make my students appear ignorant and unworldly in the presence of overseas’ guests or, in the case of my future teachers, their own students.
So how does one get the Christmas story across in English to those who have no Christian religious background, have a very limited vocabulary and, often times, can’t even understand in class what in the world the foreigner is talking about?
What better way than a Christmas crèche re-enactment, complete with simple props and costumes and a great photo session at the end!
18 years ago, I wrote a Christmas 3-page skit with a cast of 12 characters. After tweaking and perfecting it, I now have a lovely re-enactment play which students read out of class, answer written questions about and then we go over in class together.
Our 1st 40-minute lesson, we read the lines together, go over difficult words, get the correct pronunciation of strange vocabulary and make sure the comprehension questions are answered accurately.
The second 40-minute period is the re-enactment.
All names go into a bag and then we have a drawing to see who will read what part.
One by one, students draw slips from the bag and shout out their classmates’ names to play the different parts. As they come forward, bringing their scripts in hand, I pull from my suitcase props and costumes to bedeck those who are our play members.
Hoots of laughter follow as a lacey tablecloth shawl gives Mary her sweet innocence, a felt red bathrobe gives Joseph his masculine authority, a staff and sheep puppet help bring the shepherds to life, tinsel garlands grace our angels’ heads, and gift boxes allow the wisemen to present something to the baby Jesus. Narrators wear colorful Christmas vests I’ve had for years and the innkeepers hold high their candles in order to see who is knocking at their door.
A stuffed animal donkey suffices for Mary’s journey to Bethlehem and her pregnancy (a stuffed Christmas doggie wrapped in a towel) is one which brings the house down once our “Jesus” is birthed.
In my many years of sitting back to enjoy this performance, there are always students that make me remember just why this kind of activity is worthwhile.
For the past week, I’ve had a few memorable characters.
The first was one who rarely pays attention in class. His cellphone is always on as he texts his friends. He chats in Chinese with his neighbors constantly or yawns loudly with noticeable boredom whenever we’re doing a speaking activity. He never does his homework nor can he answer even simple questions in class. Even “Can you name 5 animals in English?” draws from him a blank stare until someone translates.
When his name was drawn to play the star, a non-speaking part, I didn’t expect much from him. But he came bounding down the center aisle with great enthusiasm, snatched up the star wand from my hand and took his place near the door to await his turn. He peered over the narrators’ shoulders, following the lines until he was motioned to take his place behind our seated Mary. Next, he bounced his way to the baby’s side, giving us all a giggle, and up into the air he thrust his prop.
I’m not sure which shone brighter: The imaginary star hoisted above the virgin’s head or his boyish grin which was hard to miss. The guy’s face just beamed!
I haven’t seen this much energy from him until I dismiss class.
If nothing else during the entire year of my lessons, at least he’ll know what the star symbolizes for Christmas.
Yet another one of my poorer-speaking male students was given the part of a wiseman. His only line was, “From my country, I bring you my gift, which is gold.”
He stood in the back of the room and practiced that line over and over again so he wouldn’t have to read it from his text. When it was time for his appearance, he majestically made his way to center stage where Mary awaited his arrival.
He knelt low, held forth his gift and spoke his line with such determined finality that we couldn’t help but laugh at his bravado. After class, one of his buds teasingly thumped his shoulder and mimicked, “From my country, I bring you gold!”
He smiled sheepishly but you could tell he was very pleased by the attention and his performance.
Then we have the actors’ crowd, those who are obviously creative spirits who add a little zip to the story.
In one class, our Joseph was a phenomenal character. She pantomimed whipping and riding the donkey with such authenticity the animal seemed real. And so Mary wouldn’t be ashamed when the baby was born, she graciously stood in front of her wife and opened her robe to block the view. An added “Waaaaa!!” had us all cheering and clapping when she, proud papa, turned around to hold high her son for us to see.
We also had one innkeeper who was so vicious in her “Go away! No room here!” that her candle went flying across the room. And an angel who flitted and floated herself around the room, eventually alighted and finally told the shepherds to follow the star.
But whether the acting was great or not, or the English perfectly spoken or just so-so, one thing’s for sure: No one will forget our in-class Christmas story performance.
Hopefully, they likewise won’t forget why Christians in the world celebrate this day. It has nothing to do with sparkling Christmas trees, Santa Claus throwing candy to the kids, or party games and dances. It has a more spiritual meaning for us — the birth of Jesus, God’s son.
And on that last note, from China, here’s wishing you and yours a very meaningful and thoughtful Christmastide.
Ping An (Peace)!