Tonight is Christmas Eve. Of all the places and years I have never felt so unlikely like it was Christmas as this year. Its not the weather or me, but more like the atmosphere. With Christmas it is not supposed to be the atmosphere as it lives in our hearts, as it always did in the past. But despite knowing this it doesn’t seem to help out any. The sounds of Christmas music are not so much prevalent here as they are back home. The usual Christmas movies and TV shows are not here, except on the satellite systems from outside the mainland. You will see stores decorated for Christmas but the feeling just isn’t there.
As a child I have fond memories of Christmas. In Detroit is was always a white Christmas. With my birthday so close to Christmas we would always go out to get the tree a week after. This was always one of the most important events of the Christmas mood. The smell and appearance of a real tree is like no other. Our decorations and lights were from the ’50’s and ’60’s along with the Christmas tradition of a new ornament every year marking the year. We had these cool plastic icicles that glowed purple when the lights were off. We had glass ornaments that have a look that plastic just can’t match. I always will remember the tree.
My family was not overly religious when I was young, however we seemed to always get into the real meaning behind Christmas. We had a wonderful and old nativity set with hand made wooden manger with straw and carefully hand painted ceramic figurines of all the players, even the animals. I was taught why we celebrated Christmas, and the the giving of gifts was symbolic of the gifts the wise men brought for the new born Jesus. I was also taught about Father Christmas, St. Nicholas and how the legend of our modern Santa Clause came about. Christmas was really magical for many reasons, not any one but them all. From the home made German cookies and treats and smell of ginger bread to the pop-up books and calendar with windows to mark each day until Christmas.
In Alabama the snow was gone as were many of the family traditions. I still picked out the tree as I did when young and not really knowing what I was doing it turned out that we always had cedars instead of pines for Christmas. The nativity was not there until my grandparents were gone. I still loved to get up at night and see the tree all lit up. The magic may have been tarnished but it was still there and the feeling remained, a little different but still there.
After I was grown and in the military Christmas was always marked by holiday leave, Virginia Beach may not have snow and all the traditions were gone, but with Christmas parties and new friends I always would find myself a guest to share Christmas with some friend’s family. This continued after I got out and moved to Milwaukee. By now the child in me was grown and I had become a little disappointed at the huge commercialization and marketing Christmas had turned into. As a child in the ’70’s Christmas was pretty commercialized but I just didn’t see it. The ’80’s and 90’s saw an increasing marketing blitz of Christmas and the ‘political correctness’ taking Jesus out of Christmas. Santa and gifts became the real focus of Christmas as school plays and nativity scenes were outlawed or at least discouraged and Christmas parties became ‘holiday parties’ and even going so far as to be placed purposely outside of the traditional holiday season. American media and inclusion remolded it into a sales and retail event and nothing more. I don’t know how schools and kids deal with it these days, but I am afraid it is explained in a very distorted light.
Shanghai is a place where the thin veil of commercialized Christmas is most apparent. As a westerner every country of our roots has a deep foundation in Christianity, either Catholic or Protestant. As a child I had some Jewish friends to I was fully aware of Hanukkah. Here in China Christianity is a very odd foreign concept as their religion and beliefs in theology are almost twice as old as that of Christian based theology. Here the people love the presents, wrapping paper, getting together and celebrating with family and friends marking the end of the year, before the end of the western calendar year. Many young Chinese walk the streets with Santa hats and dressed in green and red sweaters and vests. Chinese people are very warm and love to have a good time and modern Christmas fits into the bill nicely. They are in the mood and love the season, even if their exposure to it is only 30 years at the most. This gets us back to point. Some traditions take a real history to have the meaning behind them. Lighting of the Yule Log, going to Midnight Mass, tree shopping, going out to get warm apple cider, snowball fights, making a list and checking it twice, seeing the same Peanuts cartoon on TV as you did when you were 5 is all something that can not be matched. While they are playing Christmas music here and it is cold and there are bright decorations, wreaths, and huge displays everywhere the feeling just isn’t there.
Is it the lack of family and friends causing this? The obvious answer is yes, however if you really think about it then you will realize you take Christmas with you where ever you go. And this is what is missing here. The joy and memory of childhood Christmas past from Childhood comes to us every year. We get these feeling and we can not help but to share them with everyone we meet. From the smiles in the coffee shops to the standing in lines at the department stores, we all have a common experience in the wonderful magical feelings of Christmas that follow us our entire lives. The collective remembering and sharing these is what gets us into the Christmas spirit. We all hold fond memories of out birthdays, but we do not look at them the same as Christmas. Everyone has birthdays, just as everyone has Christmas, but the feelings ,memories and experiences are all different and unique. Christmas is different to each family however they are so similar that it really transcends these differences. Here the memories and feeling just aren’t here. Chinese people do not have all the information and meaning behind all the rituals and traditions. They do not know the meanings and reasons behind the Christmas tree, wreath, poinsettia, foods and drinks, and such. In a few decades they will most likely have the some of this but I think it will be pretty much like it is now.
I sit here alone this Christmas Eve and will be working tomorrow on Christmas Day but I maintain my little piece of the Christmas spirit inside, and that is what we have to remember. To keep the spark of our childhood and the meanings behind the traditions alive. Otherwise it is just another day, much like a majority of American holidays these days have turned into. I can say this from the other side of the glass now as I can see what it is like when the holidays lose there real meaning. It isn’t corny or silly when you think about it. Without the real meaning any event is just another day. It is hard to get into the mood when you have to work, family and friends are from across town to across the planet, but mostly because no one else really understands or gets Christmas for what it is. I am not complaining as I put myself here on my own free will. I am living the life I chose to in the place I chose. This is an adjustment however it holds a lesson as do most things in life. We have to hold our traditions dear and learn about them and really teach them these otherwise they and their meaning will disappear. I hope I can pass along the magic of the season along to my daughter.