Every year we hear the same tune, accompanied by the handwringing of political and religious conservatives.
The names change, but the rant remains the same: “Liberals, feminists, atheists, and gays have hijacked Christmas! We all know that the true meaning of Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem,” they preach on and on, accompanied by Bing Crosby...
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
I have always wondered how many of the Religious Right leaders have ever ridden in a one-horse open sleigh, roasted chestnuts on an open fire, or spied to see if reindeer really know how to fly. And I am absolutely certain than none of them ever donned their “gay apparel!”
We all know that Christmas was an early church adaptation of the winter solstice celebrations of the Roman era, throughout the empire and well beyond. It did have something to do with trees, candles, and overeating – to be sure. But I doubt that any of the revelers of the Saturnalia in Rome or the Germanic tribes or the Celts, had ever heard of reindeer or Santa Clause or the little drummer boy. That was all popularized by American corporations to sell merchandise at a very dreary time of the year.
I’ll admit that my cultural love of Christmas runs deep. I loved the partridge in a pear tree, the seven swans a-swimming, and – above all – the eleven lords a-leaping. But I had no religious associations attached to the holiday as did some of my classmates who attended Fundamentalist churches. They lived in a weird world where Santa Clause would come to their Sunday school classes and dish out presents. Then they would go into the main sanctuary of their churches and hear about the wise men, the star, and the stable story. Years later, when I was a minister in a large Fundamentalist denomination, I remarked to my wife how schizophrenic that must have been for those kids. “Trying to separate cultural myths from the truth of the Gospel could present a real 'belief' issue as kids got older,” I mused.
“I really don’t think we should teach Vincent anything about Santa, reindeer, and all that hooey,” I proposed. “He will just have to unlearn it later; and then once he realizes that it is all a lie, what is to keep him from wondering if Jesus is just like Santa as well, and whether one day we are just going to say, 'Surprise! Jesus is no different from the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy!'”
My wife, having grown up in a Fundamentalist church, had managed to make the transition from the American childhood fantasy to a solid theological understanding of her faith; so she thought I might be just a bit overly cautions. But she agreed that there was no real point in emphasizing the cultural trappings of our American tradition that the right-wing radio and television talk show hosts feel are being stolen from them by secular humanists.
Of course, we had another element in our lives that both complicated things, on the one hand, and made them much easier, on the other. We did not live in the United States of America when Vincent was encountering Christmas and Christian doctrines for the first time. We were living in Hong Kong as foreign clergy, and were (by default) immersed daily in the Chinese culture and the foreign Christian culture (by design) at the very same time.
Christmas in Hong Kong was a huge to-do, second only to Chinese New Year. Like Japan and other non-native Christian regions of Asia, the Chinese merchants had years ago learned that this midwinter Western holiday was as natural as a “shopper’s heyday.” Sometimes it is good to step back from our battles in the ongoing culture war in America. Living abroad for years has a way of making things fit into the “whole Earth” perspective. America is not the center of the Universe. Other peoples celebrate Christmas as well.
We had determined that our son, Vincent, should be brought up in a bilingual environment so that he would be able to speak Chinese without having to learn it later with all the grammar and frustration that most foreigners experience. It worked very well. He could speak Chinese from the time he could speak English, as we had hired a traditional Chinese amah to watch him while we were in language school. He learned in an effortless way that I certainly envied. When he was three we sent him to Chinese kindergarten along with Chinese kids. He was real cute in his little uniform, and was fearless as he climbed onto the little school bus for the first day – without any trepidation whatsoever. I was amazed, as I had been such a wimp on my first day of school.
We had carefully – and with much help and many suggestions – chosen an appropriate Chinese name for him, as we had done for ourselves when we first arrived. He was Mui Wing Sing from his first day in school, and not one of the other kids even noticed that he stuck out like a sore thumb. The teachers had been clued in, and treated him just like the other kids; and he never knew that he wasn’t Chinese. Until the following Christmas, that is. Hong Kong was aflutter with the oddest mixture of American, European, and Asian renditions of carols, plastic Santas, and all those trappings of the holidays that Fundamentalists hold so dear. Sometime after the Lantern Festival in the fall, the weather in Hong Kong begins to moderate, and the incessant heat and humidity give way to a kind of “shirtsleeve” weather that heralds the harking angels.
Vincent came home all excited one afternoon, and announced that Bak Gick Louh Yahn (Santa) was coming to his school to give presents to the kids. He talked about it for weeks to A-Gahm, our amah. We put up the plastic tree that I had salvaged from a dumpster the previous year. It was fine, and nobody believed that a retail store would throw away such a nice item; but storage was an issue, and nobody had private storage units in those days. We were very festive that year, and Vincent was all atwitter the day of the Christmas party at his school. We took off work to participate in the show that they had prepared, and awaited the big moment when Santa would make his debut.
I have to confess that I was not really expecting his grand entrance. What was wrong with this picture? Oh, duh ... Santa is Chinese! The kids were cheering and carrying on – Vincent right in the thick of it all. Santa had the teachers help distribute the gifts, and then he told the kids some brief stories and talked to them individually. It went swimmingly. Then Santa noticed Vincent at the ready. Nonplussed, he tried his best English version of "Ho ho ho ... What’s your name, little boy?" Then Vincent was freaked. What in the world was Santa trying to talk to him in English for? He instead piped up in Chinese, and then Santa just about fell over. Vincent and the rest of the kids didn’t bat an eye, but the teachers gave me a knowing smile, and it was our little joke.
I realized that day: Christmas does not belong to Americans or the British or the Fundamentalists. ...It is what you make of it. Vincent, the little Cantonese kids, the teachers, and that Chinese Santa had really pulled it off. Christmas had been a real hit.
Some weeks later, Vincent asked me an interesting question that I have always enjoyed recounting. I don’t know if it was because of the Christmas experience or just a growing awareness that maybe he was somehow different from the other kids. He asked me in a serious way: “Dad, when is my hair going to turn black?”