SHANGHAI, CHINA — On Saturday night I returned to my Shanghai apartment a little after 11 p.m. and paused to check my email. The queue was small, but the second item caught my eye. It was from a low-key friend in Washington, D.C., and included the subject line “unbelievable.”
There was no text, just a link to a Garrison Keillor column in the Baltimore Sun headlined “Nonbelievers, please leave Christmas alone.” The passage that my friend found unbelievable, I think, is this one:
If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.
Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.
My thoughts immediately returned to the Shanghai Christmas party that I’d attended earlier in the evening at Shanghai Putuo Spare Time University. Spare Time is an evening and weekend community college, mostly attended by ambitious low-level professionals and entrepreneurs in their late 20s and 30s, many of whom are working hard to improve their English-language skills. Once per month, at the request of a professor with whom I’m friendly, I give an informal lecture to the school’s weekend “English Salon.”
In any event, on Saturday night I was greeted upon arrival by several adults in Santa stocking caps who ushered me — their sole foreign guest — into the art classroom. Desks were arranged in a semi-circle, and there were perhaps 80 staff, students, spouses and their children gathered around, enjoying beers, cider, cake, spiced nuts, and dried meats. There was also a Christmas tree, and at the far end of the room, a screen displaying a projection of the lyrics to “Silent Night” — including the religious ones.
Most were undoubtedly nonbelievers
More likely than not, there were a few Christians in the room — Christianity is, unquestionably, the fastest growing social movement in China, today — but most of the group were undoubtedly nonbelievers attracted to Christmas in the way that most Chinese of their generation are attracted to things Western. They try them on, and if they fit — especially if they can be fit in a Chinese way — they’ll adopt them; if they don’t, they move on, no foul.
Christmas, over the last 20 years, has fit China quite well, becoming a genuine social and commercial phenomenon. Chinese cities are filled with Christmas ornaments and trees; restaurants and hotels run Christmas promotions; and Christmas parties, like the one that I attended, are ubiquitous among China’s young, educated, and trend-conscious. It’s worth noting that this is a phenomenon not lost on China’s Christian missionaries — both foreign and homegrown — who see the holiday is an excellent opportunity for evangelization.
That’s the complicated part. If you were to ask any of the young Chinese with whom I partied Saturday night, most would say that Christmas has become a welcome opportunity to enjoy a holiday with friends in advance of the much more family-oriented, heavy, and less fun, Chinese New Year holiday (which falls in mid-February this year). This Western holiday, embraced on the basis of countless films and televisions shows depicting it as a cozy time for friends to gather, has become, in its own way, a bit Chinese. For example, at the Spare Time party, the students sang “Silent Night” (religious lyrics and all) and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; later, one of their instructors stood up and performed a Shanghai work song that he learned during the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution; meanwhile, the children played a version of charades; and everyone ate, drank and made merry.
Memories of Jews lined up at Leeann Chin
As much as those Chinese students made Christmas their own, they also wanted assurance that they’d made it authentic. So, roughly half-way through the three-hour party, one of the faculty members asked me to stand up and tell them a little about Christmas in America. My mind raced back to a Jewish childhood in Minnesota. Despite belonging to a religious minority, I told the Christmas party, I never felt excluded as much as different. And, in time, like many American Jews, Christmas became my holiday, too.
I have clear memories of Jews lined up outside of Leeann Chin on Christmas; I remember attending inadvertently all-Jewish screenings at the now defunct Southtown Theater. We may not have gone to church, but in our own tribal way we looked forward to the holiday as much as our Christian neighbors. It was a chance to be together as family and friends — even if we weren’t members of “the club,” as Keillor calls it.
I can’t say whether the students liked or disliked my recollections. But they were surely interested in them: For the last year, we’ve had several long, Obama-inspired discussions about race, prejudice and assimilation in America. It’s a subject of intense interest to Spare Time’s students, many of whom are still shocked that the United States could elect Barack Obama, despite America’s troubled racial past. Raised on a steady diet of news and propaganda that depict the United States as an exclusionary and bigoted place, they are just now beginning to embrace a new vision of their strategic competitor. Keillor’s column, if they were to read it (most likely, they won’t — Keillor is unknown in China), would fit in perfectly with that older version of America.
I have no doubt that Garrison Keillor, had he also been invited to Spare Time’s Christmas Party, would have answered student questions about Christmas in America with charm and aplomb — despite the fact that most of the students don’t belong to “the club.” After all, it’s one thing to insult and disinvite enthusiastic nonbelievers on paper, but it’s an entirely different matter to tell them to “buzz off” in person — especially if they’re eager to learn from and emulate you.
‘A multicultural time’
It is, perhaps, one of the ironies of Keillor’s privileged literary life that — despite his close association with progressives and Democratic presidents — his personal outlook on the world doesn’t seem to diverge much from the narrow-minded small-town personalities he so lovingly documents in his stories. Over the weekend, Michael Feinstein wrote in the New York Times that “[w]e live in a multicultural time and the mixing, and mixing up, of traditions is an inevitable result. Hence we have the almost century-old custom of American Jews creating a lot more Christmas music than Hanukkah music.” On Saturday night, I watched young Chinese sing Jewish-penned American Christmas songs with the same gusto devoted to Cultural Revolution work songs.
So far, Chinese Christmas has not come crashing down, and — in fact — it’s all but assured that China’s churches will be fuller this year than last. That Garrison Keillor’s considerable imagination cannot allow for this possibility, but rather recurs to insensitive, narrow-minded bigotry, is a sorry commentary on someone who fashions himself a progressive-minded Minnesota populist. To my mind, at least, he’s not, and as a “Jewish guy,” born and bred in Minnesota, I’d like to suggest that perhaps, all things considered, he’s the one who needs to buzz off.
MinnPost contributing writer Adam Minter lives in Shanghai, where he covers a range of topics — including religion in contemporary China, the Chinese environment, and cross-cultural issues between the West and Asia. He can be reached through his blog, Shanghai Scrap.