I expected a bleak, depressing Christmas; it was December 1982, and I was in the People’s Republic of China. The weather was cold and I was bundled in a down jacket even while riding in a first-class train compartment. I longed to be at home, warm with my family, next to a Christmas tree and a blazing fire.
There would be no wreaths, no Santa Claus, no holly, no mistletoe, no Salvation Army bells, no church bells. There were none of these things on the first Christmas, either.
Old customs, new meaning
I had been in China since August, teaching English at the Xian Foreign Languages Institute. After the train arrived in Xian, I returned to my living quarters on campus, where 30 of us “foreign experts” lived. Indoors on that Christmas Eve, we gathered at 7 p.m. for caroling. We knew we’d find our students in the classroom building, where they study because, unlike their unheated dorm rooms, it is slightly heated.
Singing, we climbed the stairs. Slowly, door after door opened. Students streamed out, laughing and grinning. We sang every carol we knew and some we didn’t, and the students joined in on “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The students clapped and hollered and crowded around us and urged us to sing again and again and again. They followed us, the Pied Pipers, up and down stairs and from one floor to another.
The next day, Christmas Day, students visited us with all manner of cards and gifts: swatches of silk, plaster of Paris folk animals, golden Buddhas, folk masks, scrolls, hard candy, apples. The Chinese “English majors” had learned our customs and were happy to participate.
Christmas dinner was cabbage-and-pork, cabbage-and-carrots, cabbage-and-you-name-it. The Chinese eat the vegetables of the season, and by the Christmas season, the only vegetable in Shaanxi province was cabbage.
This is what Christmas is about
The most affecting moments that Christmas Day, however, were those spent in church. Because the school authorities were unwilling to cooperate with me in finding the church, I quietly asked a student to help me. He agreed to lead me to it – but clandestinely. At an appointed hour, and without showing any signs of recognition, he would ride one carriage ahead of me on a tram and get off one block before I was to get off. I was then to turn left and walk a distance down a road to find the church.
Following my student’s orders, I found a baroque structure built by Franciscans in 1885, its walls now surrounded by a sugar factory. Inside the church, the only architectural marks of China were the pillars, painted red, the color of good fortune and happiness. At six side altars, three on each side of the nave, the predictable Western saints were installed: Mary, Joseph, Teresa, Anthony, Cecilia, and, of course, Francis.
As I went inside, I was transported back into my childhood. The Mass was in Latin, the priest’s back to the people. Confessions were heard all during Mass, as was the clinking of rosary beads. People engaged in many pious practices, repeatedly crossing themselves and genuflecting.
Men were on one side of the church, women and children on the other. Most of the women’s heads were draped in black. And how everyone did sing! Some 150 people of all ages raised their voices in the inimitable sounds of Chinese music – which for Christmas meant Chinese words set to the melodies of Western Christmas hymns.
In those melodies so foreign to their Chinese ears, the congregation sang out cacophonous renditions of “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a place about which the majority of their compatriots had probably never heard.
Mittens on and hood pulled around my head against the cold, I sang my heart out with them, mixing my English with their Chinese. This was a first Christmas, an un-commercialized Christmas. And these were my brothers and sisters.
Dr. Mary Suzanne Schriber is a retired English literature professor writing from Charlottesville, Va.