Celebrating Christmas in China
By Michelle Stabler-Havener (MDiv ’03)
Advent has always been an important season for me. This is because the Christmas spirit, at its best, is about peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind (Luke 2:14). It is about remembering Jesus’s birth, which often serves as a motivator for people to take part in peacemaking activities such as volunteerism and giving to worthy causes. Additionally, it is about family. As a Christian, I hope to embody this spirit all year round, and I find it meaningful to celebrate a season that reminds me to do so.
When I lived in the United States, it was clear when Christmas was coming. Much of this was because stores began decorating earlier and earlier in hopes of shoppers buying sooner and spending more. Many symbols of the arrival of Advent, however, were not so materialistic. Churches were decorated with nativity scenes and banners that displayed scriptures reminding us that God became human and dwelled among us, like one of us, for a time. Moreover, communities worked together to string lights and set up lawn decorations for not just their neighborhood, but also for others to enjoy.
In Chengdu, China, where I live, there are few of these traditional Christmas symbols. Some stores now set up Christmas trees. Hotels, which cater to foreigners, occasionally string up lights. One sees a Santa now and then taped to a restaurant window. These decorations come out in patches, the first showing up around the first week of December, others coming out Christmas day. They usually stay through Chinese New Year, which can be anywhere from the middle of January to the middle of February, depending on the lunar calendar. Some decorations never go away, making Christmas in July or April or August common. Symbols seem to lose their significance when used in such a manner.
There are, nonetheless, meaningful indicators of Advent in Chengdu. Some are found in nature; some I set up to remind me of the spirit of the season. For example, it is Christmas when the dog plays in the crunchy, bright yellow, fan-shaped Gingko leaves that have fallen from the trees. It is here when I set up the Advent wreath on the dining room table—created with candles from Ikea, a wooden nativity triptych made by Chinese Christian woodcarvers in Beijing, and three stalks of bamboo peeping out of a white vase—on which is painted a traditional Chinese, blue peony design. This sits on a multicolored silk cloth made in Nanchong, a city two and a half hours away from Chengdu. Though I have to be more intentional about celebrating the Christmas season since living in China, it remains an important holiday to me, worth the effort needed to surround myself with symbols of it.
Michelle Stabler-Havener, who earned her MDiv from Fuller in 2003, is an English instructor at a university in Chengdu, China.
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