This post is rather religious. I've tried not to be preachy, but if you'd like to avoid this topic, I'll understand.
"We have Christmas in China now," one of my students said several months ago, tossing her long, silky black hair over a shoulder.
"Do you believe in Christ?" I asked, curious.
Silence. She looked caught off guard, uncomfortable. Then: "Well...no..." She trailed off.
Then, just a week ago, my students were working on their "bucket lists". When I told them to imagine they had a month to live (and would die December 14th), one of my older students exclaimed, "But that's right before Christmas!"
I remember laughing. "But you're Chinese!" I said. "Why do you care?"
He looked crushed.
I felt like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings--Christmas is mine! My own! My prrrecioussss! It wasn't the Christmas spirit at all, but I couldn't help it: It seemed to me as if my students were acting excited about Christmas because Westerns were doing it--plain and simple. Like wearing Levis or drinking Starbucks. But there didn't seem to be an understanding that the very word referred to Christ, to Christianity.
When my family lived in China in the late 80s, there was no church for us to attend. Qinghai Province was a hardscrabble place, where survival was good enough. Any Muslim or Buddhist pilgrims bowing their way across the desert were kind of laughed at out there.
There are Catholics in Shanghai, believe it or not, openly worshipping the Virgin Mary and saying the "Our Father". But China’s government is officially atheist—Communist Party members are forbidden from belonging to a religion. So of course, Catholic priests must be approved by the government in Beijing (Wikipedia, that source of all knowledge, says: “All worship must legally be conducted through state-approved churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which does not accept the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.”). In the past, those who disagreed “were subject to oppression, including long imprisonments as in the case of Cardinal Kung, and torture and martyrdom as in the case of Fr. Beda Chang, S.J." (again, Wikipedia). According to the Pew Research Center, only about 5% of Chinese people declare themselves Christian. China never ceases to amaze me with its ability to say one thing and do another: A non-Christian country that has imprisoned Christians for spreading the Word now has citizens that want to celebrate Christmas!
Just because they put up some decor doesn't mean anything, I've grumbled inwardly, more than once. But isn't that what happens in America? Can you honestly tell me that ALL of those light-hanging American present-slingers think about WHY?
"There's wealth associated with Christmas," one of my ex-pat friends said.
She had a point. Thanksgiving weekend sees a whopping $50 billion in retail sales, according to the National Retail Federation--that's 20% of total annual sales—possibly more.
"It's a sign of status to spend and to do what foreigners do," my friend continued. She'd lived in Shanghai a bit longer than I had, so her information was usually good. "That's what they care about. It has nothing to do with beliefs." I agreed that she was probably right, but I still felt like a child unwilling to share her favorite toy. Here in Shanghai, I find myself ungenerous with my own religion.
I also find myself unable to attend church most of the time. Teaching working adults means that I work Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. My days off are Monday and Tuesday, and most of the time I am running errands--or hiding in my apartment, away from 23 million people, watching Netflix. I don't make the effort to ride two subways over an hour away to go to a quiet weekday mass. I've probably attended church three times here since I arrived in July of 2013.
My unintentional Scrooginess with my students has forced me to take a good hard look at myself and my beliefs. Whether Chinese people believe in Christ or not is not really for me to judge, is it? Will Christmas lose its meaning for me just because millions of people blindly celebrate Christmas? Sometimes I'm afraid it will. Then...the problem here is with my own faith--not with what other people do.
It would be so much easier to stay angry at my students, and to even blame them somehow, no matter how irrational that sounds.
However, rather than making an opportunity to invite Chinese people to discuss Christmas, to learn about what it means, I've been shutting them down. I've been shutting the door.
Is that what a good Christian does?
I keep coming back to Matthew 7:5. I'm worrying about the behavior of others--judging it--when I should deal with my own shortcomings.
Americans consider blowing half a year's savings on Christmas a sign of status, too. We want that perfect Disney-Hallmark-Christian Christmas, when everyone in the family gets along, the meal is perfect, and the gifts are unforgettable. We make ourselves crazy trying to make this happen. "Keep the Christ in Christmas" seems like clichéd advice from a bingo-playing granny, but Granny has a point. What's more important to me, to us: missing family to work overtime so we can buy the latest gadgets and the hottest fashions? Or having a smaller, less expensive holiday, but one in which we can actually spend time with loved ones?
The meaningful thing, the good thing, is usually not the flashiest. A good Christmas is usually not the one we see on TV--we see the extravagant Christmas, the perfect Christmas. And we all want that. But is it real?
But some of my best Christmas thoughts aren't about gifts at all.
When I was a child, my mom used to put a little nightlight in the bathroom for us at Christmas time, or in our bedrooms when we were sick. The nightlight was a little ceramic house, maybe five inches square, painted like brown brick, its roof draped with snow the way a gingerbread house is coated with frosting. A single small light bulb glowed from the house's tiny windows, shining through the holes ("ornaments") on the little tree outside the house. So warm and so cozy! How many nights did I fall asleep looking at it?
I also used to love to watch the tree. My dad put the lights on a timer, and sometimes if I couldn't sleep I'd sneak out to the couch and stare at the tree while the lights were still on--the bubble lights gurgling, the silver horses dangling on their red cords, Mom's reindeer hanging from the prickly pine branches. The little portraits my sister and I had made in preschool hanging near the top of the tree. I have felt more peace looking at a Christmas tree--alone in the cozy darkness of my house--than I have almost anywhere else.
It occurs to me that both of these thoughts are about light, and how Christians are supposed to be the light of the world.
I am human and I have messed up. I've been stingy when perhaps I can find a way to share.
I will try my best to change that this Christmas.
Postscript: During a Current Events class about the American tradition of Thanksgiving, one of my students wanted to know the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had to smile, because her confusion was understandable: due to marketing and the media, everything between Halloween and Valentine's Day probably seems one big candy and gift fest.
Carefully, I told them that Christians believe Christmas is the day Christ was born. Most of them nodded. They've heard of Christ, and they seem to know the basics. Some of them did seem to know that decoration and presents are just for show a lot of the time--no matter the holiday, no matter the country.
I'll admit when I saw IHOP's holiday pancakes commercial (online) right after Halloween, I felt a wave of nostalgia and homesickness. People in the marketing business know exactly what they're doing, and we fall for it every time.
Without trying to sound preachy, I told my students that the commercialism bothers me. It does hurt me sometimes--here and at home--when people put up a tree or buy presents without thinking about why. It's exactly like having a birthday party and not even speaking to the guest of honor--we wouldn't do that to a human person--why are we doing it to Jesus?
Christmas is in the heart, not in the other stuff.