My Christmas as a Child in China
A small walled town in China where my parents were missionaries was the site of my early Christmas memories. Preparations would begin by going to a neighborhood nursery and bringing home a pine tree that was five or six feet tall which we set up in our living room. Small slender candles set in paper saucers were attached to the branches. In the evenings during the Advent we would light these for a little while, and gather around to enjoy the magic.
In daytime during Advent, my two brothers and I would accompany our father to houses of church member to deliver red lanterns to them. They had “Jesus Christ” painted in large back characters on one side, and the character for “birthday” on the other. The lanterns were large and we boys had to hold our arms almost straight out to carry them all and our arms got very tired. But we were happy as we made our small, festive procession through the town.
With these delivered, we eagerly awaited the Christmas Eve Pageant in the church. When our parents discovered that there was no education for girls in our town, they founded a Girls’ School before they even built a church. During the Christmas Eve Pageant, the graduating class in the school would sing a stanza of a Christmas carol in English to impress their parents with their education. However, Chinese children have difficulty pronouncing our “r,” so the stanza would come out, “ling, the melly, melly, Clismas bells; ling them fah and neah..”
After the service, parishioners were invited to our home where the furniture in the living and dining rooms had been removed and replaced with square tables and benches. Parishioners would stream in to the tables, gulp down a large bowl on steaming noodles, and then exit to make way for the next contingent. That would be our Christmas supper as well.
An hour before midnight a group of about thirty carolers would gather in our house, and from there we would process down the town’s narrow lanes—many of them so narrow that if a grown man stretched out his arms he could touch the walls of houses on both sides—and we would stop at doors where red lanterns, now lit, were hanging, and we would sing a carol. My job was to accompany the carolers on my clarinet, and my fingers were so stiff from the cold that I could only hope that I could make them press the right keys. When the circuit was completed, the carolers would gather in our home where our cook had cups of hot chocolate and home-made marshmallows waiting for us.
The next morning the servants’ family would join us around the tree in our living room. The room had been warmed by an upright, coal-burning stove, the only stove in the house except for the flat cooking stove in the kitchen. After singing a Christmas hymn, presents were handed to the servant family. Every year the same presents: cotton socks and gloves, a tangerine and peanuts.
When the servant family departed, we settled down to open our own presents. Our mother always asked for the same gifts, a blooming narcissus plant and a box of chocolate-covered peppermints. Our boy’s presents were almost always books and board games with which to entertain ourselves during the year—checkers, Parcheesi, and their likes. One memorable year there was an erector set!
After the festivities were over and I was ready to climb into bed on Christmas night, I would go to the window at the foot of my bed and look out. The town would be quiet, with the stillness of a town that had barely known an engine of any sort. And as there were no street lights, the town would be dark. This made the stars seem to hang so close that if I stretched out my arms I could touch them. And I would find myself marveling that those self-same stars had been shining from their ancestral places on the night that Jesus was born.
Huston Smith, author of "The World’s Religions," is currently working on his memoirs, Tales of Wonder, Tales of Deep Delight."
Posted by: BGone | December 24, 2007 12:41 PM
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