Maria Holland

O Holy Night?

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2009 at 1:33 am

Well, this was certainly the strangest Christmas Eve I’ve ever celebrated.  But in an earlier conversation with Aleid, we decided that if every holiday here isn’t the weirdest you’ve had, then you’re doing something wrong.  In that case, I must be doing everything JUST RIGHT.

I began the day by getting up early to bake.  I wanted to bring cookies to class fresh-from-the-oven, so I had pre-made some batter the day before.  I baked frantically while getting dressed and made it to class a few minutes late.  The teacher forgave me, though, when he tasted the cookies; they were generally a pretty big hit.  Showing up to class already dressed for Christmas Mass and bearing a platter of fresh cookies made me feel like such a trophy wife . . . I think my baking skills are earning me major points with the men; I even had one guy “approve me as a wife”.  Sweet?

After class, I had a wonderful lunch – some of my favorite dishes (红烧茄子,地三鲜,西红柿炒蛋,辣子鸡丁,干锅白菜,米饭) with some of my favorite friends (Aleid, Kristina, Carlos, Katrine, Bianca, Talia, Vikki). 

In the afternoon, I took another student – my Chinese friend, Vikki – under my wing to teach her the art of baking cookies.  We made one batch of batter together and she stayed to proudly take the first few trays out of the oven:


I continued on my own, baking all those as well as another batch.  Some friends passed through and one of my Chinese friends, Yong Zhi, even stayed for the rest of the day.  We had interesting conversations while I baked – I showed him my photo album and we somehow ended up discussing the 2nd Amendment and why it’s in our Constitution.  

All in all, I baked over 300 cookies – 6 batches.  That was probably a bit much, but I will definitely bake again.  I really like feeding others, and making a single batch isn’t really that hard.  It’s also quite cheap – 35 kuai, or just over $5, per batch using all Chinese ingredients.  But obviously, you can’t put a price on joy, which is how I felt when I watched people eat my cookies.  For most people, it was either their first cookie ever or their first cookie in a long time – different kinds of happiness, but happiness all the same.

But it turns out that baking 100+ cookies 5 at a time takes a little while, and I didn’t start until after 2:00.  Before I knew it, it was past 5 and I was still baking.  I called someone at church and they told me that things started at 7, so I finished baking then quickly made my way over to the church on Gulangyu.  Arriving at a quarter to 7, I discovered that dinner was already over and the pre-Mass performance had already started.  I still haven’t figured out exactly what started at 7 . . .

Christmas Mass here had only the vaguest resemblance to home.  There were a thousand million gazillion people and Mass was held outside in front of the shrine instead of in the church.  Some of my church friends thankfully found us a spot behind the choir where we, like the rest of the congregation, half-squatted on small plastic stools.  There were more people than usual, but I didn’t mind the crowd that much actually – it’s hard to be upset when there are ‘too many’ people at Mass.  The thing that bothered me, though, was that a Chinese Catholic Christmas celebration proved to be a tremendous draw for every photographer in the province.  There was the man who, for some reason, likes to record Chinese Mass from start to finish, getting up close and personal with lectors, celebrating priests, and participating foreigners.  There were the guys with full hitchhiking backpacks wandering around the alter snapping photos, occasionally taking phone calls on their cells if the need arose. 

It was all a bit too much for me and I found it really frustrating.  The good thing is, the part of Mass that resembled home was the important part – the actual substance, the Eucharist.  I took a few deep breaths, reminded myself that nothing else mattered, and made it through without crying or yelling (despite thinking, at various points, that self-control was not possible). 

After Mass, I wandered around trying to find people I recognized in the crowd so that I could give them cookies.  I also got a picture taken with a friend who was playing Santa Claus.


As we waited for my Santa Claus friend to get done, we walked around the shopping area of Gulangyu a little bit, which was crazy crowded.  I also caught some of English Mass, and what I saw made me wish I had chosen to go to that one.  There were less people for one, but even more important was the belief, widely-held among foreigners, that it’s not acceptable to talk or answer phones during the service.  Crazy talk!

By the way, here’s me and my friend Yong Zhi after Mass. 


Word has it he’s a member of the Party.  I find it a little hard to believe but, at the same time, it shouldn’t surprise me because it just sounds like one of those situations I find myself in – taking a Communist to Mass. 

We caught the last ferry back to the mainland – midnight.  Chuan Lu (Santa Claus) took us to meet some of his friends, who were waiting for us at ZhongShan Lu.  Specifically, they were waiting for us at McDonald’s . . . so yes, slightly after Christmas Eve turned into Christmas Day, I found myself entering McDonald’s.  (And, since Chuan Lu was paying, I ordered an ice cream cone.) 

From about 3 in the afternoon until the day was over at 3 in the morning, I pretty much spoke only Chinese with my friends.  There were three particularly memorable exchanges – little gifts of encouragement in my Chinese studies:

  1. During Mass, one of my friends showed me which page we were singing from.  I, in turn, told Yong Zhi “一百零二”(one hundred [zero] and two).  You have to say ‘zero’ in there because if you say 一百二 (literally, one hundred two), it means 120.  Anyway, he noticed that I said it correctly and later told me that I sounded like an actual Chinese because this is something foreigners so often mix up.
  2. As we were getting off the ferry, the ramp up to land was particularly steep.  While in Wuyishan, Aleid and I spent about 20 minutes describing the concept of “steep” to our Taiwanese friend, trying to learn the word before he told us 陡.  So, just to test out my new word, I commented that the ramp was very 陡 and my Chinese friends, without a second thought, agreed with me and remarked that it was because the tide was low.  I literally leaped with joy.  That was a hard-won word but is now MINE.
  3. After Chuan Lu introduced us to his friends as “my American friend, Maria, and her Chinese friend”, one of them asked him (in Chinese) if he was my translator.  Without even thinking, I responded myself: “I don’t need a translator!”  All of his friends were shocked that I could speak Chinese – not just 你好 and 谢谢, but a slightly harder word like 翻译 (translator).  The look on their faces (surprised and a little bit embarrassed) was priceless. 

After talking with them for a few minutes, Yong Zhi and I decided to head home.  After waiting for a taxi unsuccessfully, we figured it wasn’t too far to walk (although it was then almost 2 in the morning).  It was a nice walk, though.  There were very few people out, which is something you almost never see in China.  We had an interesting conversation, too, asking about parts of each other’s culture that we don’t understand.  I asked about keeping windows open when it’s cold outside and talking through concerts; he asked about drinking out of the same bottle or cup. 

When we passed a barbecue stand on the side of the road and Yong Zhi offered to treat me, I figured that this was exactly what my Christmas Eve was missing.  I said yes and we sat down on tiny plastic stools to eat skewered lamb meat – just like we do at home every hear.  The air was filled with the familiar sounds of Christmas, like the young people next to us loudly playing drinking games.  And of course, I was sharing it with just the people I would have wanted to be with on Christmas Eve – my friend Yong Zhi and the half-drunk Chinese man next to us.  Actually, the last part was kind of nice because the man quickly became a friend.  After quite the argument between the two of them, he ended up paying for our food.  (And when I asked his name so I could thank him, it turned out that his last name is actually the word for ‘thank you’ . . . “Thank you, Mr. Thank You!”)

I got back to my room around 3.  I talked to my parents for a few minutes and also got to hear from some relatives who are snowed in in Oklahoma (which actually is a December tradition for me), then went to bed.  Pretty standard, actually, except for instead of looking forward to opening presents with the family I was dreading the arrival of Christmas class . . .

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