I have spent 17 Christmases in China. I still remember my first one. I was in Shanghai, and I played the stereotypical Christmas playlist as I eagerly opened a Christmas care package full of mint chocolates, books, and love from my parents. A lot has happened since those early years, and my Christmas celebrations have evolved several times over.
Early Christmases were devoted to chaotic marketing strategies in a different age. It was 2007, and I was a kindergarten teacher working in a school that saw Christmas as the perfect way to gain publicity by showing off how fashionably modern the school was. We had a gigantic Christmas tree that was colorfully vandalized with blue and pink garlands and a string of lights that could land an airplane. My students put on a drama of the gingerbread man, and we sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” while a Chinese Santa tossed red packets and fruit. It wasn’t quite “Christmas” for me, but we had fun.
A few years after that, public demonstrations of Christmas fell out of favor, but we still celebrated among home groups. There was one year our group decided to have a cultural variety show. A friend from New Zealand taught me and a group of Chinese young men how to do a Maori war dance. I’m not really sure what it had to do with Christmas, but when all was said and done and the message shared, I was still honored to see many friends cross the line of faith.
After I got married, my Christmases changed once again. We were dirt poor and in the throes of marital culture shock. My dad had always made holidays special by doing artistic Christmas food projects, from mugs with chocolate-covered pretzel rods to gingerbread cathedrals. For me, spending hours on confectionary delights with It’s a Wonderful Life playing in the background was normal. My wife was not impressed. To her, it was a total waste of time on junk food. We inherited a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and decorated it with our small collection of ornaments. My wife made me promise to never buy her a gift with a cord and to limit our Christmas budget to 100 RMB each.
My most difficult Christmas was in 2020. I spent it in the isolation ward of a Chinese hospital, but not because of covid. My oldest son was fighting leukemia for the second time, and he needed to have a bone marrow transplant. In order to maximize his chances of survival, the hospital required one parent to serve as a 24-hour orderly for the duration of the process. I spent the holidays in a windowless room surrounded by constantly beeping machines, but even there, he and I were able to celebrate.
We decorated a digital tree on his iPad, and I let my son open his gifts—a pen set wrapped in notebook paper with a hand-drawn design and a book that I had written for him when he was two years old. A friend illustrated it for me, and my wife was able to print it in time for Christmas. We video chatted with family and played Minecraft together on opposite sides of the glass that prevented any germs from my breath from casually wafting into his room.
You might think that we were unfortunate—that this was a terrible way to spend Christmas—but you would be wrong.
In that little room, we were surrounded by grace; and we, or at least I, learned the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas is not about what’s under the tree. It’s not about the decorations or the celebrations, the music, or the food. It’s not even about the culture. Christmas is about love. It’s about peace. It’s about joy. These are not things that you have or you don’t—they are things you have already been given. They are yours, but you must choose to open them, to release them. So this Christmas, as you are rushing to your program, spending time with your family, or cleaning up the post-holiday disaster, remember that you already have everything you need to have a Merry Christmas—you have Emmanuel, and that is enough.
These days, my family still tries to keep Christmas simple. We still decorate that little Christmas tree, though every year I say I’m going to get rid of it. We read the Christmas story together and reenact it with the Fisher-Price Christmas crèche my wife got for me one year. We exchange a few thoughtful gifts, and we share a meal with close friends. Instead of the showy programs and extravagant spending, we have gone to a deeper level. We don’t share as much of our Christmas as we used to, but when we do, those who experience it feel that God is with us.
Christmas in China has changed over the years. We’ve had to adapt to different circumstances, but I don’t see it as a negative thing. Even with covid restrictions and increased pressure regarding public gatherings in general, we do not lose any of what is really Christmas. In many ways, it is actually a gain. I don’t really miss “All I Want for Christmas” in my local supermarket, Chinese Santa, or the tree that the abominable snowman threw up. By limiting outward displays of Christmas spirit, the door is left open for the quiet, tireless work of the Holy Spirit.
The night may be silent, but the angels still sing.
Image courtesy of the author.
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