Most will be familiar with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and his famously irascible and miserly protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by three ghosts who teach him the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps fewer will realize that the word “ebenezer” is actually a noun meaning “a symbol of recognition or commemoration of divine help.” I have more than one ebenezer, like the pearl necklace I lost and was just sick about. I’d been all over the place, and I remember sitting at a gas station after searching everywhere I could think of, just praying in my heart. At that moment the Lord gave me a wonderful, peaceful feeling, and the assurance all would be well, which was all the more poignant many hours later when I found my necklace in a parking lot in Salt Lake, where it should have been stolen or crushed to bits. You can call it coincidence if you like, but in my heart I know that first the Lord reassured me, then kept my necklace safe until I could find it again, not because the object itself was of any great, eternal import, but because it was important to me. He wanted to show me he was listening, even in little things. For me the necklace is a symbol, an ebenezer, and one day I hope to pass it on to one of my children, with a copy of the story.
I actually wrote the following post several years ago, shortly after we had arrived in China. We didn’t know how to do anything yet, our house smelled moldy and was so frigidly cold we couldn’t stand to be anywhere but in our bedrooms under a pile of blankets. To top it off we had just suffered an unexpected financial reversal that put a kink in everything. These were challenges to be sure, but not insurmountable, and moving to a foreign country was bound to have its growing pains. This is an old memory from a time when my children were young, before events would catch us by the heels and tear us limb from limb, yet everything in this story is just as relevant today as it was when I wrote it down nine years ago. We’re all older now; I guess more scarred and skittish too, but scar tissue is stronger than perfect skin, though it may not be so pretty. Maybe that’s why this far-off Christmas has been on my mind, it reminds me that God knew what was coming, and took the time to teach me the answers long before the typhoons truly began to blow. This memory is an ebenezer, and I wish to share it with you.
Porter says “Christmas is kind of a knockoff Easter,” and he’s absolutely right. Christ, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all tumbling together, coated in so much sugar and glitter that it’s hard to tell which foot is sticking out of the meringue; is that a sandal, a boot or just a really long ear? Who cares, let’s worship whoever gives us the most stuff.
China is the land of knockoffs. Knockoff ipods, knockoff dvds and knockoff handbags. Abby had a Gucci purse that cost her five bucks and lasted a whole week before rivets started popping and the main zipper quit working. She let Chase throw up in it while we were in the back of a moving car in Hong Kong, so I guess it was good for something. When we tell people we produce board games, most Chinese scratch their heads and ask what that is. “It’s a game you play on a board, like Chess or Go.”–“Oh, I see.” But we can tell they don’t really get it. They admire western ideas though, and enough enterprising souls have knocked-off American and European games that this spring will mark the first Shanghai game convention. The market is slowly opening, even if the games are adulterated and off the back of a truck.
China has imbibed Christmas too, though they don’t really get it. It’s a knockoff with rivets that pop and zippers that quit, a few Charlie Brown trees in the discount stores, a rather disturbing cardboard Santa head floating disembodied on a restaurant’s glass door, or my personal favorite, the anemic tinsel draped over the Buddhist shrine in the nail salon. Many stores even pipe Christmas music through their speakers, much of which is far too religious for American retailers, but it’s all in English, so most people assume that some Santa songs are fast and some are slow. The west is so enthralled with Christmas, that the Chinese figure they’ll produce a cheap plastic version to get more bang for their buck. It’s all an afterthought though, the St. Patrick’s Day to our Christmas. They haven’t even cottoned on to wrapping paper yet, aside from a few pre-cut sheets, sold individually, mostly covered in hearts and flowers, and sized to wrap a single shirt box and not one inch more. The real celebration here is Chinese New Year, a holiday of renewal so dear to the Chinese heart that even business grinds to a halt as the country virtually shuts down for the most of the month of February.
My children attend a private foreign language school, which means all the students are required to learn English, and to participate in a western-style Christmas program. However, the same disconnect that allows stores in a Communist country to play Christian holiday music, also prompted Chase’s teacher to have her 6th grade class sing Lady Gaga’s “Christmas Tree.” It’s all about Christmas and Christmas is cool, so we’ll pull it off the internet and sing it too.
In their defense, it’s a knockoff holiday in a knockoff country and a knockoff Christmas carol called “Christmas Tree” decorated with Lady Gaga’s signature double-entendre and hedonistic sexuality. The teacher’s first language is Chinese. She didn’t get it, but Chase did. When she noticed he wasn’t singing, she stopped the rehearsal and asked why.
“I can’t sing this. It’s too dirty.”
Flabbergasted, she put it to a vote and half the class immediately sided with Chase and the other half, plus one, chose to stick with the fast beat and delightful lyrics. But after school the teachers got together and overrode the vote, replacing Lady Gaga with “Jingle Bells.”
In Utah we lived in the house where Christmas threw up: assorted wreaths, candles and flower arrangements, three Christmas villages and big, luscious trees in the living room, dining room, basement family room and in each of the kids’ bedrooms, all dripping with ornaments collected since I was a teenager and representing most of the places our family has visited. I knew it wouldn’t be the same this year; I was prepared for difference. But I didn’t know that after we arrived everything would go so badly wrong–one carefully laid plan toppling after another into the polluted canal. Even our personal belongings which we’d planned to arrive two weeks after we did, are not going to land until February or March. We’re on our seventh week sitting in China with the contents of one suitcase each, and this morning Chase showed me that he has suddenly outgrown the size 14 pants I bought him just before we left. So we find our heroine facing Christmas without ornaments, wrapping paper or a single measuring spoon.
Undaunted I dug a Charlie Brown tree out of the basement, leftover from the Taiwanese family that lived here before. The Taiwanese also left us four or five moose that are supposed to stand on the floor, each eighteen inches tall, on two wooden feet and wearing red and green ski outfits, so I propped them in Charlie Brown. I braved Auchan and picked out whatever might go with a moose, and the least plasticky of the Christmas balls. Overall the tree isn’t too bad, and I found a tree skirt in Shanghai that sort of goes, if you don’t get too close. We found fresh cranberries on the internet, so I can make my special sauce, and my friend even snagged me two whole rolls of wrapping paper from an expat family that’s heading home. These are little blessings I would have been too blinded by glitter to appreciate in the United States.
Every year from the day after Thanksgiving to the second of January, some inner demon has prompted me to transform our home into a department store display, selling our kids on the idea of the perfect Christmas. Every year I turned myself inside out, trying to pile the presents high enough to make my children’s eyes light up on Christmas morning. And every year they did light up, though every six months when we went through to declutter their rooms, I sent a few gifts off to D.I., their seals unbroken and a limp triangle of Christmas wrapping still clinging to the box. This year our kids enjoy our single Charlie Brown tree and even with our few possessions, they were slow to figure out what they might want for Christmas. Apparently having to think of something they wanted badly enough to eventually ship back to the United States, really narrowed the field. Christmas is in seven days and Abby still hasn’t come up with more than a rhinestone hair clip and a couple of scarves, and being a born horse trader, she prefers to haggle the vendors herself, certain I’ll give in too quickly and pay too much.
It’s true that nothing went as planned, but the most important thing I have learned in China is that while I’m intently watching the front door, a finer blessing puts on a clever disguise and comes nipping in from the back. My Charlie Brown moose has finally grown on me, and I’m genuinely looking forward to my knockoff Christmas in this knockoff country where sacred music is played in stores, even though the government doesn’t allow Chinese and foreigners to worship in the same building. Christ is still here, His name spoken in English and whispered in Chinese as He stands square-shouldered behind the cardboard Santa. Even the Communists can’t hide a being of such magnificence that His example would give rise to another boy born 2001 years later, who quietly stood against the tide to say
I will not sing that.
18 December 2011