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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Old Man Christmas

Christmas in Chinese is "sheng dan jie." Sheng dan meaning Christmas, jie meaning festival.

Merry Christmas, then, is "sheng dan kaui le." Christmas + kuai le, a phrase that means happy for joyful.

And Santa Claus is "sheng dan lao ren." Christmas + lao ren, literally "old man," and so (with a little naturalization and reorganization for English), Santa Claus is "Old Man Christmas." A lot like the British Father Christmas, when you think about it.

"The holidays" in China are a disorienting time. None of the traditional cues exist here; it's a bright and sunny sixty-six degrees outside as I write this, there's no Christmas music or ornaments assaulting my senses in the shops, and I don't watch TV (although I should, it'd help with my Chinese), so the idea of "ChristmasBUYBUYBUY" isn't being hammered into my head. So it was kind of a shock when I realized that it's already the middle of December, that Christmas will in fact be here soon, and that it's going to be an unusual and unavoidably lonely Christmas in China, without the family and friends that I've shared this time of year with in the past.

They say Christmas is when most foreigners crack; if I can make it to New Years, I think I'll be OK.

I taught some classes the full "Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem this past week, and it went over well. Interestingly, my freshmen, thirsty for culture and vocabulary, really ate it up (I think my drawings (with color!) of Santa Claus, reindeer, stockings over the fireplace and wreaths on the board helped). My juniors, who are in my literature class, were as disaffected as normal; I might as well have been reading stereo instructions. I explained that this poem helped define the American image of Santa Claus: flying reindeer, red-nosed and red-cheeked and red-coated (although red isn't mentioned anywhere in the poem) and bowlful-of-jelly-shaking, and all that jazz. And then I told them that, when you think about it, this poem's image of Santa Claus is the one that has become world-famous; this poem is the reason the people working at the supermarket wear pointy red hats in December.

I thought that was pretty amazing, how this American poem from two hundred years ago has come all the way to China and effected their daily lives, if only in such a small way. I think some students were with me, shaking their heads in awe of the impossibility of it all; others just wanted me to draw more funny pictures on fat red men on the board.

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