Let’s go back to my year in China for a moment. In fact, let’s turn it back exactly one year. I was walking into my adult English class with my $.45 Santa hat on that I bought at nearby stationary store. It was the kind of store in China that doesn’t have a cash register—it’ll get your change from a drawer of loose bills that they rifle through until they find what they owe you in return.
Anyway, I walked into class with hat atop and got a few reactions from the ten or so students there that evening. We always warm up the class with a little conversation; tonight’s was a no-brainer.
Now, let me tell you, a roomful of students asking about life back in your home country is a lot of fun. All those faces eager to hear about the interesting, and sometimes ordinary, aspects of your day. “What’s it like to chip ice off your car?”, they ask after admitting that no-so-flattering truth.
I explained my students, ranging from 20-40 years of age, my routine of running out to the car each morning, brushing the snow off, starting it, running back inside to eat a bowl of cereal, and then leaving for the day.
(If this got their attention, you can imagine the looks I got from them when I talked about driving a car on the lake, drilling a hole and fishing!)
Telling others about life back in Minnesota gets me to see my home in a new, fresh way. It’s fun reflecting on it from afar and seeing others’ reactions to it. This night was about Christmas.
They’d seen my hat before as Santa is sometimes on display at large retailers. One student asked what the hat was called.
“It’s, um, a Santa hat,” I said.
“San-ta hat”, one responded and wrote it down.
It suddenly struck me how interesting it is, this secular tradition of Christmas we have.
An old, fat man who flies around the world in one night giving away presents. (Trust me, this said in front of 10 Chinese adults sounds awful funny.) And I didn’t even mention the elves.
I went over to the map on the wall in front of the room and said that Santa visits the “whole world in one night”. Pointing at all the places, I rethought Santa visiting all the “houses” in Africa, South America, and Asia and going down their “chimneys”. Yeah, this does not sink in real well in a country where most everyone lives in apartments.
There’s the whole flying part, too, and the fact that his sleigh is pulled not by horses (something I illustrated when explaining “Jingle Bells” earlier that semester) but by deer.
“By golly that is weird!”, I thought. “Deer pulling a sleigh.”
I guess it seems especially funny here in China because while they have adopted the look of Christmas in some commercial sights, they don’t have the “infrastructure” to support it—the houses, the pine trees.
There was another refresher of this little Christmas lecture, a second gift: my own recollections of being a boy.
I had just told the class, in response to why we tell the Santa story, that this whole Christmas yarn is all for the children. They believe in Santa and get very excited about it. Then I mentioned the custom of leaving cookies and milk for Santa, and WHOOOOSH! I was tossed back 20-some odd years ago.
I remembered this: me being a little boy and waking up one Christmas morning to find that the cookies and milk my siblings and I left out the night before were eaten.
I could remember the kitchen linoleum, off-white counter tops, and crumbs on the plate. But more moving than the environment, I could remember the feelings of the exciting mystery: Who ate the cookies? I recalled, and could feel presently, just a hint of that giddy excitement a child knows so well.
A few seconds went by in class with me in front, silently remembering this moment. Then I thought out loud, “Did I really believe in Santa Claus and the flying sleigh and all that?” It’s hard to remember. I do remember those cookies and by that point I want to say I thought that Mom and Dad ate them. But I also remember that it wasn’t adult skepticism and “wait a minute” suspicion.
I was still living in the land of make-believe but was starting coming out of it. This apparently coincides with the time in one’s life when memories start to solidify, as if one’s memory starts where one’s childhood fantasies end. Like childhood fantasy is something too precious to capture in memory, only good for the moment, of the adventurous minds of children.
To remember back that far is fascinating.
How about you, Reader? As well as connecting you to young children around you today—helping you to appreciate how they see the world—this thought exercise adds depth and perspective to your own life.
So here I extend a New Plateau recognizing the traditions of Christmas (and their appearance to outside cultures). And what’s more, let’s recall that magic of being young, in that space of “fantasy-reality” that makes childhood so precious.