In one entry, I wrote about our Christmas preparations, so now I’ll write about our Christmas proper. First of all, as I mentioned, Jesus was notably absent!
Of course you realize I write that a bit tongue in cheek, to get your attention. But if we don’t "watch it," we’ll end up with a holiday like they have over here: a whole lot of commercial emphasis on shopping, vague talk about family gatherings, everybody wanting their picture made with Santa, but nothing — absolutely nothing — about "the reason for the season."
If there’s no reason for the season, why have it? Why not just have seven little tiny men sitting on a castle in a snowy landscape resembling the north pole, exhorting people to shop? Or, here’s another scene: I was so pleasantly surprised to see an Angel Tree in front of a store, but when I went to get a card off the tree I found that all the cards were identical advertisements for a car dealership. For those readers who don’t know what an Angel Tree is, it is a Christmas tree filled with cards. Each card has the name of a child, along with that child’s age and a suggested gift from their "wish list" for Christmas. For example, the card might say "Amy, age 8, size 8 clothing, would like barbie doll." A person shopping for Christmas would take the card, buy and wrap the gift, and then deliver it to a designated location. On a certain day, the Angel Tree gifts will be delivered to all the needy families who participated. This is one way the "real" Santa visits children: a spirit of giving and celebration of the true meaning of Christmas, which is all about the greatest gift.
Let me assure you, that if we are not guarding our cultural traditions, nobody else is! So here’s a small challenge: in your own mind, what are your most important Christmas traditions? (And while I’m on this thought, I want to say "Thank you, thank you, thank you to my home church youth group for sending me photos of their Advent and Christmas activities, especially delivering Angel Tree gifts and other community service activities!" It really made my day — honest!)
I’m not so vain as to think that MY religious tradition is the ONLY one that includes giving and charity in its box of attributes. But I certainly want the charitable and deeply sincere impulse of Christmas — along with the underpinning of that gift-giving impulse — to be recognized with candor rather than brushing off the whole business as meaningless superstition! I don’t want my religious tradition to be relegated soley to the category of quaint, somewhat pagan commercial traditions like Easter eggs and Santas, either. Whoever wants to preserve Christmas in any authentic, meaningful fashion, needs to begin at home, and also at church, and beginning not just at Advent but at all seasons of the year. Otherwise, our children will grow up like some other children I know, who think faith is some archaic notion that belonged to their grandparents and nominally to their parents.
(E.g. can you find ANY mention, any at ALL, of "the reason for the season in the following little piece: ?)
<a href="http://special.lifeofguangzhou.com/2006/node_612/node_613/2006/12/19/116649935812238.shtml" target="_blank"/a>
Okay, enough of the soapbox. Ever heard of the guy who was "so heavenly minded he was no earthly good?" I’ll try to pull my feet back on the ground!
On Christmas eve, we ended up with 23 people at our house for our Christmas carol sing, including ourselves. It was a jolly time with lots of music, friendship, and good food. Everybody brought a dish to share, and we had a lot of fun visiting. My biggest mistake was that I was so nervous about my guitar playing skills that I told C we needed to sing first and then eat (she wanted to do the opposite). Problem was, that if people arrived late they missed the songs. But no matter, we sang some twice or three times! Then, we had great desserts and fun talking, and then at about six thirty, we left to go out for dinner.
Our particular family Christmas tradition has become that we always go out for dinner on Christmas eve. No cooking for me! It’s just too busy! This is partly in response to our tradition of traveling and spending many hours in the car during our Christmas holiday. (Plus, in the USA we normally go to a church service on Christmas eve, somewhere, somehow.) The first year we went out for dinner, it was because we had just come home from one or another set of parents houses. We had no food purchased or prepared, and all the stores were closed. So we went out. It was a lovely and memorable, quiet dinner at Olive Garden. We enjoyed it so much, we began doing it every year. And so now, Italian food has become high on our agenda for Christmas eve dinner. This year, in keeping with that tradition, we decided to go out for Italian.
Now, in Guangzhou we are spoiled because the Italian restaurants are run by Italians. This year we went to Oggi’s. Even our Chinese waiter spoke his English with an Italian accent, we supposed because he learned English from his Italian restaurant manager and Italian chef. Since we had just eaten lots of snacks with our party, we decided to decline the 230 RMB set, full course meal and instead to split a couple of things. C and I split soup, salad, and ravioli, D and J split lasagna. The four of us ate for less than 200 RMB (about $25).
Our waiter was in a really happy mood. He said it was because all of his customers were so pleasant and happy tonight. He had figured out that it was Christmas and that’s why they were happy. He asked us, "There’s something to this Christmas, isn’t there? I mean, it’s more than just the New Year, right?" We told him that Christmas was about Jesus’s birthday, but he didn’t want to discuss any more than that.
I think he was just fishing for a big tip. He’s in a western restaurant, and a lot of westerners leave tips if they don’t know better. In China, however, we don’t tip as a general rule. First of all, it is rude. When one is served in a restaurant, one expects the person to do his job and give good service. A tip implies that this might not be done otherwise and, while the money is welcome, the insulting implication is not. Second of all, we tip in an entirely different manner, which is to give "Lucky Money" at Chinese New Year. This is the accepted way to bestow favor upon people one likes or whom one wants to bless, particularly single people, employees or people in service profesions, and to children of friends. Instead of giving small tips all year round to the waitresses etc., we prepare red envelopes ahead of time for the waitresses and service people we have developed personal relationships with. This is greatly appreciated, and in fact I like the tradition better because it acknowledges more of the long term aspect of the relationships we have developed. In fact, I now get rather affronted when I sense a waiter angling for a tip, because it is alien to his culture and very forward and rude of him to presume that he can get by with seeking a tip from a westerner. So we all left happy: he didn’t care about Christmas, and we didn’t care about leaving a tip.
There was one small damper on our Christmas spirit. There was a recent campaign in the Chinese news media to denounce Christmas as a dangerous threat to traditional Chinese culture. That’s because it’s "western" and not "Chinese." You can read in between the lines "colonialism" or you can read "two legs good, four legs bad." Either way. Now, contrary to media assertions about lack of authenticity, I think there is something about Christmas that transcends culture. Our housekeeper told me "Chinese don’t do that, it’s purely a foreign thing," but in fact there are lots of Chinese who celebrate Christmas. They are here, but they don’t celebrate the same way as the Westerners. Here, it’s very much just another day. They go to work, they come home. They might attend church or go to a special service. Last year there was a candlelight service at one of the local churches, although I don’t know of anyone who attended there this year. But there is no tradition of having a birthday celebration, making an issue of Advent, or of giving gifts. The big celebration associated with this time of year is the Winter Solstice.
The Three Wise Men from the East could well have been Chinese, because astrology is big here, in traditional Chinese thinking at least. There are auspicious dates for weddings, one can have good luck and bad luck based on one’s date of birth. Indeed, overall one’s date of birth can be good or bad, leaving that person with indelible and inescapable good or bad luck for life. A spouse should be chosen according to these calculations, names for children are chosen accordingly, businesses planned around these dates and fates, placement of objects in houses to counter or assist these forces (feng shui). And the winter solstice is significant in astrology. The big event at the end of December, in traditional Chinese culture, is the winter solstice. On Christmas eve, there were many people out on Saturday night, celebrating the first evening after the winter solstice, one of the biggest unofficial holidays of the year.
After dinner, we decided to go out for a stroll, because I wanted to see the lovely lights. Those pictures are on my blog. It was a beautiful evening, with temperatures in the low to mid sixties, clear air for a change. And literally tens of thousands of people out on the street. at 9:30 P.M., I was shocked to find myself shoulder to shoulder for blocks on end. I took some photos (see photo album, this Blog). Do you notice that the photos say "Happy New Year," not "Merry Christmas"? Last year they said "Merry Christmas." But plenty of people on the street said "Merry Christmas" to us, which impressed me to no end. If a Chinese person were out on the street in your home country on the first night of Chinese New Year, how many people on the street would be able to say "Happy New Year" in their language? Even though we were aware of a danger of pickpockets, or that we might look a bit odd in our Santa hats, we felt welcomed by the ordinary people. And, we decided to indulge C for her favorite treat, a coffee from Starbucks. And not just that, but cheesecake too. There were so many people out! We were shocked that we were able to get a seat.
There were in fact so many people out, that as 10:00 approached we began to get nervous about being able to find a taxi to get home. We decided to cross the street to a place where there is a big book store (five stories high). People arrive in taxis and leave in taxis, so there are usually taxis waiting, but a few less crowds. Bad move! The book store had just closed. There were no taxis coming to let people off anymore, but there were hundreds of people there trying to catch the few taxis that did come by. A couple of times, bitter arguments broke out between people competing for the few taxis. We knew we couldn’t compete, so we decided to walk to the bus stop and catch the bus home.
This is when the only disconcerting event of the night happened. Walking to the bus stop, along the busy road and with a sidewalk wall to wall with people, we were crossing by the entrance to the city-center stadium. D quickens his pace and says, "Let’s hurry up and get past this miltary stuff." I looked up and realize he is talking about a caravan of about five miltary trucks that are pulling within arms reach of me, loading into the parking lot at the entrance to the stadium. I don’t think think too much of this, until I see that each truck has a cage with bars, holding the biggest German shepherd police dogs I’ve ever seen, in the back. I don’t think too much of that, either, since I’m not doing anything threatening etc, and I see no signs of anything threatening. But then I realize that there is nothing, nothing at all, warm and fuzzy about these dogs. They are all snarling and lunging at the bars of the cage. It puts a knot in my stomach, and I feel ill. In all of the thousands of people I had seen that night, I hadn’t seen any sign, no drop, of unrest or unruliness. But the contrast of the vicious dogs with the otherwise complete normality of a quiet, pleasant night, just rubbed it in that this is not a free place. One must always be aware: there is no right of assembly and no freedom of press or speech or thought. If you express a thought outside the mainstream, you could be branded a public enemy. You might even disappear or be branded as dangerously lunatic, literally.
How is this linked with Christmas? I don’t know exactly, but I think it is linked, in the same sense that all our cultural values are tied together into a bundle, each influencing the other.
In my value system, you have value as a human, not merely as an instrument of the state, not because of some benefit you might bring to me. I value your freedom of conscience, not merely your capacity to contribute to my factory quota. And where do these values come from? Well, because the "big man in the sky" values you and me individually, that’s why. There is an order in the universe and we fit into it in some way. We each are valued, individually, so much that X sent his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. However we interpret those words, it’s definitely the major thought that counts on this holiday season. Here is this little baby, born for this fate. And there I shall end. You are loved and valued; I am loved and valued. Inceed, loved so much, and that core value drives many of our western attitudes and traditions! That’s the real message. The rest of our family Christmas is yet another story. Therefore . . . to be continued!