Some things are just too good to keep to yourself, and Christmas is at the top of my list! But how do you make the most of Christmas while teaching in China, when some people love and some hate foreign holidays? “Balance” is the word that comes to mind.
For 15 years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching at major Chinese universities, and every Christmas has been different. In some years, I was given a large classroom where hundreds of students came to celebrate with me. In other years, while my students had to write essays on the evils of foreign holidays, I wasn’t allowed to even mention Christmas in class. But for the most part, students love celebrating Christmas, even when administrators must publicly snub the world’s most-celebrated holiday.
If you find yourself in China at Christmastime, don’t be surprised to see Santa, Christmas trees, and other secular symbols everywhere; but you have to search diligently to find anything related to Jesus’ birth. Even in Hong Kong, it is almost impossible to buy things that say “Christmas” in Chinese (圣诞节, or holy birth holiday—which conveys the real meaning far better than the English word).
At the risk of overgeneralizing: to most young Chinese people, “Xmas” is a time to party with friends while enjoying colorful lights, happy songs, Santa-hats, sweets and (hopefully) gifts. Therefore, when I’m allowed to include Christmas in my curriculum, I want students to have fun, sing, win prizes, and in the process, learn about the “culture” behind the celebration. We pass out Santa-hats and wear little angel-decorations; we decorate a tree with Snoopy as well as mini nativity scenes; we teach vocabulary that includes words like sleigh, stocking, shepherd and manger; and we sing Jingle Bells as well as Silent Night.
Actually, “Silent Night” is a fairly well-known song, so Christmas Eve is known by the Chinese name of that song: 平安夜(ping-an ye, or peace-filled night). And as the Chinese are very fond of homonyms, the 苹果 (ping guo, apple) has come to symbolize “ping-an ye”, and thus it is increasingly common to give ornately-wrapped apples to friends on Christmas Eve. My students are amazed to learn that this is a uniquely Chinese custom!
Colorfully-wrapped apples on Christmas Eve.
But even when Christmas is verboten in the classroom, we still welcome students and friends to parties at our home, every Sunday night during Advent. Each week features something fun: decorate our tree, bake cookies, make greeting cards, play board games, etc. We usually include a movie night, for there’s always something to talk about after watching White Christmas, The Grinch, or Snoopy’s Christmas (students know the dog much better than Charlie Brown, his owner).
Decorating the Christmas tree.
Amidst the fun, we take time to light an Advent candle and read scriptures about the four things we say the candles represent: prophecy, shepherds, wise men and angels. When the presentation is balanced with food and fun, no one is offended, and good discussions often follow.
Advent candles, Santa hats, and Christmas pancakes.
Many years, we’ve said, “We are going to church Christmas Eve; if you want to join us, meet at the bus at 6pm.” One year, ten students showed up! They had never been to a church before, and thought it would be interesting. Many of China’s Three-Self churches put on lavish pageants on Christmas Eve, for standing-room-only crowds. The music and program are great, and there’s normally a good message about the “historical event”—but students noticeably squirm when an invitation is given to give their lives to Christ. One year, while discussing the evening at McDonalds after the service, students surprised me by saying that it was much more “pushy” than the weekly English Corner held at the same church—which also prominently features Biblical inspiration. Why? The weekly Corners gave them a chance to speak as well as listen, and therefore they felt that the benefit outweighed any “Christian” content. Again, they found value in the balance.
A church's Christmas Eve celebration
Foreign professionals working in China must walk a careful road, working hard to bring value to the community while sharing the things that are “too good to keep to oneself.” Yet our faith is just as much a part of us as our area of expertise, and without it, many of us wouldn’t have the stamina to endure China’s pollution and other inconveniences.
We love being a part of this community, and we love our work, yet an even higher love compels us to talk about things that are sometimes unwelcome. So, we find refuge in balance: being professional and generous at work, but also making the most of holidays and other opportunities to share with those who have “ears to hear.”