Relearning Christmas

Last week my lesson plans revolved around Christmas (in Beijing, work doesn’t stop for Christmas like it does elsewhere). We began by discussing Christmas traditions and moved on to the stories surrounding the mystical figure of Santa Claus. We watched well-known British animations The Snowman (1982) and Father Christmas (1991), short Christmas classics that every Britisher born in the 80s and 90s will have seen on TV as many times as they’ve seen Home Alone. 

Spouting explanations for the examples my 70 undergraduate students suggested, I soon realised I would have to explain that not everyone celebrates Christmas in the same way. This became obvious when a student assured me that people exchange apples as Christmas gifts. It is true: apples in gift boxes abound at Christmas time in China. Last year, I was given three in one day. But this is a distinctly Chinese tradition, growing from the similarity between the word for apple (pingguo) and the Chinese for Christmas eve (ping’an ye) – ping means safety or peace. I had to divulge that this doesn’t happen elsewhere in the world.

I soon began to realise, though, that teaching them about how to make mince pies and the toys from Christmas crackers would portray a somewhat skewed version of “how to celebrate Christmas”, if indeed that is what they were taking from the class. I knew for a fact that most Americans haven’t got a clue what a mince pie is, and then cannot work out why there is no longer any actual meat in mincemeat. (It’s an old British tradition: originally meat and fruit pies, mince pies contain fruit, sugar, booze, and often some vegetarian suet – the only trace of meat left now.)

So, after teaching my students about the origins of the character – Saint Nicholas of Patara, Turkey and how his name was elided into the Dutch Sinterklaas which, if you simply alter the vowel sounds, becomes Santa Claus – I investigated on my own. My test case? The loud American with whom I live eight nights a week.

After showing him The Snowman (1982) and Father Christmas (1991), my boyfriend was left with a strong sense that the British had simply misunderstood the story of Santa Claus.

Santa is supposed to live in the North Pole with Mrs Claus, his nine reindeer (if you include Rudolph), and a workshop full of elves. He is a kind, jolly old man who wouldn’t know a bad mood even if it got lodged in his fluffy white beard. He doesn’t drink, smoke, gamble. He doesn’t go on holiday to sunnier climes during those other 364 days, he watches over the elves, feeds the reindeer and designs new toys.

Raymond Briggs – and thereby every British child who’d watched Christmas TV in the 90s – had got this figure of Christmas all wrong. After a long discussion of the differences between American Santa Claus and British Father Christmas, mainly revolving around the importance of alcohol at Christmastime, he wrote a poem based on the 1823 American classic, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas or A Visit from Santa Claus. Sitting in bed that night, we read and recorded the piece for all our friends and family to hear.

So without further ado, here it is:

We wish you all a Merry Bloomin’ Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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