Last month, amid the headlines vying for our attention, two words caught my eye. A world leader was threatening to “Cancel Christmas” in his country. I realized the context was public health and that Christmas has a huge basket of meanings: Santa, Jesus, cookies, angels, nativity scenes, and parties with red with green packages. The secular and the sacred. But my first response, remembering Herod: “I think that’s been tried before.” Most of my adult life has been spent in countries where the holiday has some sort of boundary placed around it. Too foreign. Too religious. Too unscientific.
Christmas was written out of textbooks. Sometimes forbidden. Santa usually receives a pass, but not the babe of Bethlehem. God incarnate. Still the story is told. His children continue to share this historical event. We celebrate in creative/messy, accurate/inaccurate, bold/timid, personal and impersonal ways. What about this year?
Does anyone really need to be told that it will be different? As I review memories from past Christmases in Asia, I’m comforted and reminded: they were all different—with a holy common thread.
On my first Christmas in China, we were packed into the pews at a local church. Families, students, freezing people off the street, grandmas arriving on the back of their grandsons’ bicycles. The cozy seating brought warmth to my body and the choir’s rendition of “Silent Night” warmed my heart. Colored lights framed the doorways and snowmen were taped to the windows. The pastor explained what happened in the City of David and how it matters today. A group of older ladies presented what sounded like a rap of Luke 2. (Years later after learning some Chinese I found out I was right.) Everyone got an apple, and we all rode home.
The church celebrations expanded and became more elaborate as time went on and I moved to larger cities. College students planned their own gatherings. Skits were performed based on current events—sometimes with a moral at the end. A carol was taught. Pastors gave short talks on why this baby was born and invited people to his church. Several young people boldly shared about their road to faith. The room was a fire hazard; stools filling the aisles and people standing in the doorways. All word of mouth. No advertising. One university scheduled mandatory meetings for its freshmen on the nights of the gatherings.
On a tropical Christmas (in Southeast Asia) my colleague and I learned that our expat fellowship had so many families with other plans they decided to take two weeks off. What about us? We found an enthusiastic bi-lingual service, long but inspirational. Afterwards we headed off to a big hotel for lunch and internet. Somehow the “Jingle Bells” from the lobby piano made us both want to go back to our apartment. Before we left, we got a call. Some local friends from our English school wanted to take us out for dinner. I really don’t remember if it had anything to do with the holiday. That evening we enjoyed a delicious meal and shared about the holy birth. From Genesis to the gospels! They had so many questions. “There is more to the story than we ever imagined!”
In an equally hot, snowman-less location, children wearing Santa hats at an afterschool English program enjoyed a party and games, sang “we wish you a merry Christmas,” exchanged gifts, and gazed at a nativity set. The Luke 2 account was told with the figures—in both English and a longer version in their language. Was anyone listening? Well, the figures were intriguing and the cartoon booklet they received was colorful. Later one teenager skipped the refreshments and was matching the figures with what she saw in her booklet. The next day her aunt came to an English lesson and wanted to know if it was a true story. What had her niece shared that night? Out came Google translate and a map and a tale became real. An event in history . . . in a country on the map . . . with its own language, and a man who had once lived and died there.
One day at a small hotel and tourism-training school the English students started asking their teachers how their class would be celebrating Christmas. Expecting the school to be closed, no preparations had been made. But a friend had just sent a children’s book with beautiful pictures and a simple narration. Was it simple enough? Not to worry. The one believer in the class leafed through it and asked if he could translate. “It might be better for them.” The look on his face was priceless as he shared with his classmates.
The world has become so connected. Teachers, students, and friends return from study and work abroad. When December rolls around they remember what they did last year in Japan, Canada, Korea. The talk begins with food, then traditions, music, and a gift. Our neighbors will wonder about something. How do you celebrate, teacher? Santa . . . Jesus . . . Tiny Tim. So many good stories. Which one do you like?
Several years ago, I wrote of a memorable Christmas celebration with a teachers’ class. After a dinner of more drinking than eating they arrived at my home, getting every decoration on film. As I wondered where the evening would go, one woman picked up a nativity figure and laughingly held it in my face. “Does a story go with this?” Teachers may not host such gatherings this year, but I have no doubt that true believers will still face similar questions.
Merry Christmas! May you be filled with the joy of Jesus’ birth; the news that cannot be canceled.
Barbara Kindschi and the ChinaSource Team
PS. The picture is of a figure my teammate crocheted while in quarantine last month.
Barbara Kindschi has been privileged and challenged to teach English in China, Myanmar, Laos, and beginning this year, Mongolia. Her classes have been filled with undergrads, professors, accountants, hotel employees, monks, government workers and beauty pageant contestants. They continue to be both her students and teachers. View Full Bio
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