I brought Jie-jie into kindergtarten Wednesday to see that the room was decorated with garland and a small artificial Christmas tree with ornaments and lights. Lao-SHUH Mai (Teacher Mai) informed me that the children are asked to bring in their own Christmas tree from home. I was surprised and a bit annoyed. I mean, the kids have already brought in their own plants (we bought a cactus), their bunnies, turtles, and goldfish (we declined), and empty food boxes and bottles for the play grocery store they set up in the room (they appreciated the American organic fruit snacks and mac n cheese boxes – the little grocery now has its own import section). Now we need to go out and buy a Christmas tree even though we don’t even celebrate the holiday?
Lao-SHUH Mai then asked if we would be traveling home for Christmas. I told her, no, it is too expensive. Why didn’t I tell her that we don’t celebrate Christmas? Because, I’ve tried that on other Chinese folks and it doesn’t really go over that well – I decided it was best not to make Jie-jie’s teachers suspicious of her American-ness.
I learned my lessons in this regard with Xiao Ying, my language tutor (and at this ex-pat “holiday” party we attended last weekend – it will get its own post). Xiao Ying asked when we met this week if I would be missing lessons around Christmas.
“No.” I replied, “We will be here.” Our lesson centered on times and dates. In studying the vocabulary, I had paid little attention to the word for Christmas – figuring that Chinese New Year would be a more important word. Contrary to my expectations, the tutor had developed a Christmas-themed lesson. She wanted to talk about what date Christmas is, what I do on that date and at what times, etc.
Finally, I said, “Actually, we don’t celebrate Christmas.” Xiao Ying’s mouth dropped open and her head started bobbing up and down with the shock of it.
“What…? I don’t understand. Isn’t it the most important American festival. Isn’t it a very large celebration?”
“Well, it is big. Many, most, Americans celebrate Christmas but not everyone – it is not surprising in the U.S. if you do not celebrate.”
“But why? I do not understand?”
“Well, for some people with different religions, they do not recognize Christmas because it is a religous holiday. But then some people who ARE Christians don’t celebrate it because they think the meaning of the holiday is lost to all the shopping and, you know, the whole business aspect of things. And for us, we don’t have the religious beliefs and we also don’t like the all the money-making and consumerism…” and at this point she was looking nonplussed and I was blushing with the absurdity of it all.
Fortunately, Xiao Ying bailed me out. “It is the same in China for many festivals,” she replied. “People forget the meaning and just worry about making money or having time off from work.”
I was grateful for the rescue but, all the same, wonder why in the U.S. we can’t all get together and have a collective holiday that isn’t contested. Sure, we’ve got a culture that values dissent, democratic squabbling, and multidinous cultural/religious traditions but sometimes there is something to be said for a place where people take their individual selves a little less seriously and put more emphasis on staying in step with one another despite their differences. As I don’t think any of our existing holidays would manage to get buy in from all consituentcies, what about a new holiday, “The Day of Collective Effervescence,” perhaps, or “Uncontested Community Day?”