I grew up with Christmas Eve being calm and serene. There was a hush that seemed to fall over all the land as people went to Christmas Eve services in quiet churches where congregants held glowing candles and sang “sleep in heavenly peace.” Afterwards, our family would gather around a crackling fire with eggnog and cookies to listen to my dad read the Christmas story from Luke and “The Night Before Christmas.” It was all very hygge.
Then we moved to China.
It took us a few years before we actually had Christmas Eve with Chinese people. Since December 24th and 25th are not holidays in China, we usually didn’t do anything with local friends on those days since everyone had work and school. We’d host a Christmas party for them some weekend in December when it was convenient for them to come.
So, our family’s actual Christmas Eve looked very similar to how it had always been—carols, cookies, Silent Night. (No fireplace or eggnog, but still.) It remained a special, treasured, peaceful night for us.
Then one year, our kids’ Chinese preschool announced to us that they wanted to have a Christmas party for the school.
“Great!” we said.
“On the night of December 24th.”
“Oh,” we said. “Okay.”
The head teacher asked for my input. The school wanted it to be a “real” Christmas Eve, so she wanted to know what Americans normally did for Christmas Eve. I tried to explain about the candles and carols, about baby Jesus sleeping in heavenly peace. She nodded, but I could tell I was not giving her the answer she was looking for.
“Well,” she said, “We were thinking that your husband could dress up as Santa Claus and give out gifts to the children. And he should say ‘Merry Christmas!’ to everyone in English.”
Um, okay. Sure, he can do that.
I offered to teach the kids an easy Christmas song in English.
“No need,” she responded. “We have already organized our own music.”
We arrived at the preschool on Christmas Eve, on the lookout for the Chinese version of luminarias and heavenly host, or something like that. Instead, there was high-powered techno dance music with throbbing bass. There were swirling disco lights to match. There were balloons everywhere. It was a PARTY with not a drop of serenity in sight.
The courtyard was filled with loud kids and parents, eager to experience their first “authentic” Western Christmas Eve. We joined them with our eyes wide, a little overwhelmed to experience our first Chinese Christmas Eve. The principal found us and had my husband whisked away to change into a Santa suit and beard. She told us to enjoy ourselves, then went to make excited announcements with a microphone, shouting over the music rather than turning it down. My PA-feedback Mandarin wasn’t great at the time, but I caught that there would be musical performances by various groups. First up, the teachers!
Maybe this is where things would quiet down? Maybe all the lovely preschool teachers (every last one of them was a sweet young lady in her early 20s) would glide out in matching choir robes, carrying candles and singing “Joy to the World” in Mandarin?
Rather than a traditional song, a new pulsating dance song started blaring through the loudspeakers. Out ran the teachers, all dressed as cavewomen.
I wish I was making this up.
They had matching (and rather revealing) leopard-print outfits on, and carried a fake campfire to the middle of the courtyard. They put it down, then began doing a coordinated cavewoman dance around it to the throbbing beat.
We were just about as far away from my childhood picture of Christmas Eve as we could get. In fact, I believe we were hovering somewhere between “Mardi Gras” and “Spring Break,” especially when the confetti cannons went off at the end of the song, spraying the cheering crowd with even more FUN.
It was now very clear to me why the head teacher had not liked my ideas of softly glowing candles or quiet hymns. My version of Christmas Eve didn’t fit her version of Christmas Eve, just like her version was not fitting mine. This is the sort of thing that happens to one when one lives in another culture.
But of course, there was not much I could do at that point beside shrug my shoulders, dive into the party, and have a FUN Christmas Eve instead of a serene one. (And get a great family selfie with the handsome English-speaking Santa Claus.)
Since then, we’ve had many more Christmas Eves. Most of them have fallen on workdays, which means we’ve had our quiet family celebrations again. But who knows? Maybe someday I’ll get nostalgic for the renao version, and then you can bet I’ll be tossing confetti in the air on Christmas Eve. (But I’ll leave the leopard print to the twenty-something teachers.)
Let's be pengyou.