A China Christmas Story: New traditions in Shanghai

Each year, on the farmlands of eastern North Carolina, an average American fellow smiles giddily on Christmas Day as he rides past sunset-painted fields toward rural Middlesex, a town with a couple of stoplights, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of shops.

He parks on the driveway of a cozy countryside home, inside of which are enough crafts and memorabilia to fill an artisan shop. He will be warmly embraced by elderly loved ones who knew him before he could know himself. The house will fill with dialogue, broad-ranging and blunt, as each family member settles into his or her favorite nook. The guy will eventually move onto the piano bench, where he’ll audibly rejoice as several generations of kin belt their favorite hymns and carols to his keyboarding.

This is the Christmas I’ve known for my entire life.

This is the one I missed this year, because I was in China.

Nothing described above, from being in an actual house to driving past a square mile of land that isn’t dense with people, is particularly normal in Shanghai. So what happens when a man is separated from tradition?

Perhaps he learns to create new ones.

Friday, December 22, 10 am — Yangpu District

It’s showtime.

Within 15 minutes, previously empty seats in an upstairs ballroom are filled front to back with grinning parents and grandparents as agile with an iPhone camera as Ronaldo with a ball.

Their children, from two-and-a-half to seven years old, are sprawled around the front of the room as they wait to take the stage. They are impeccably adorned as elves, trees, and other characters to accompany the specific scenes they’re about to perform. And they can’t be cuter.

Things only get better as groups of a dozen or so kids, each of them representing a different grade at Andersen Kids Academy, take the stage in turn to sing or narrate a story of a lonely Christmas tree finding community and happiness on Christmas. And it’s my job to produce the thematic music and accompaniment that’ll keep them moving, grooving, and crooning.

From a dusty $50 keyboard prone to glitches, I work to create the desired effects with help from my friend Nathan Ofori, the Ghanaian manager of the academy who reminds me, in my ear, of the melodies as I play them. He attempts to keep each class singing vaguely on key and in rhythm. Their dancing and gesturing are, fortunately, precious enough that the audience needs little else to be satisfied.

Nathan sleeks around the room as he must, alternating between roles of conductor, greeter, stage manager, and musician, based on whatever is needed at any given minute. He is a former professional musician, but we have limited time to play together, he on bass and me at my synth station. I instead have Andy Wang, an 8-year-old student with excellent English and a love for soccer, as my musical complement on drums throughout the whole event.

Chad Higg Christmas him Andy Nathan
The author, young Andy Wang, and school manager Nathan Ofori, who was a professional musician

As we get through the final song of the play, something written to the tune of “The Muffin Man,” I discover that we’re only done with half of the party, as one British teacher announces the continuation of ceremonies. Very soon, the parents themselves are taken to the stage, where the dads compete for gifts through balloon-blowing contests and the moms compete in a fun but aggressive version of tag. I am but a grinning laowai in the background as I provide Christmas tunes on the keyboard to denote when action starts and stops.

Afterwards, the kids gather back up on stage for a final massive play-along to Mariah Carey’s “Christmas.”

And with that, Andersen’s production of The Littlest Christmas Tree and its associated festivities comes to a close, with beaming faces all around. A production that Nathan had contemplated canceling only days earlier due to a lack of preparation proves a resounding success.

Then it’s time for lunch — a warm payment for my volunteer service. The parents generously work together to bring about a massive feast. Interestingly, the food is mostly Western. I smile a bit extra.

Saturday, December 23, 4 pm — Huangpu District

Back in the U.S., I was always tickled when I recognized our town Santa as a man I knew from church — he had a bald head and white beard and was grandfatherly, perfect for the role. In Shanghai, grandfatherly white men are in short supply, so on this day — despite being a couple of generations and few weight classes behind that beloved church friend — I am Santa.

I’m at a school for young children, lounging casually in some back closet and musing about the attire I’ve just donned. All of a sudden, the teachers arrive at my door and beseech me to make a grand appearance before the kids. I slide out obediently and catch sight of the loud, gleeful children — and their parents — awaiting me.

“Hello! Merry Christmas!” I continually embellish my awkward strides with these words, unsure of what else to say that the crowd would fully understand. But before I can think of something to do next, I am ushered into position in the center of the room along with the school’s actual teachers. Music comes on, and they start to jig. I must likewise jig.

The music ends just as I am beginning to figure out the moves, but the Christmas party has just begun. My role as Santa is, well, it’s actually pretty simple: The kids and their parents play games; somebody wins; the teachers make sure I understand who won; I give winners a gift in my most Santa-like tone of voice; the parents implore their kids to say either “Merry Christmas” or “谢谢” (xièxiè, thank you) in return. I don’t have any issues fulfilling this role, though I seem less than successful at teaching some new English words to the kids, who generally stare at me blankly, cry, or continue to run about and kick balls and other objects.

Besides this ineptness, I hold through the entire event with the composure and focus of an elf on Christmas Eve — that is, until I am caught off guard by a random European couple looking from the sidewalk through the window, laughing at my performance and waving. I smile, wave back, and reflect for a brief second. After being a foreigner in China for a few months, you can sometimes forget the absurdity of certain scenes, because they occur with such frequency.

Chad Higgenbottom Christmas Shanghai

Sunday, December 24, 6:30 pm — French Concession, South Shaanxi Road

Save for the gaping absence of any of my family members, Christmas Eve is a swell day. Despite the air quality index hitting a bad 260 earlier in the morning, as my friend had duly reported, it had fallen more than 150 points by nightfall, and just in time.

Approaching the high-rises and lustrous malls of Shaanxi Nan Lu (陕西南路), we come into one of several areas in Shanghai where the trees are decorated with Christmas spirit and beautifully illuminate street-level life. We — that includes a Brit, two Nigerians, and a Henan native — are surrounded by a colorful collection of folk, from young Chinese couples enjoying their stroll, arm-in-arm, to gleeful grandmothers who have seen more change in China than anyone can imagine. Additionally, there was this guy:

Chad Higgenbottom Christmas Shanghai Chad Higgenbottom Christmas Shanghai

Alas, this haphazardly wheelchaired, Chinese version of Inspector Gadget auditioning for Back to the Future was actually not the strangest character we encounter on this night. That honor would go to these Russian entertainers found outside Exit 2 of the South Shaanxi metro station:

There’s often music or some display in this spot, but this is certainly the most unique thing I’ve seen in the streets around here. The band, apparently an all-Russian outfit, is also an entertaining and talented bunch, though I can’t make out any holiday-themed songs.

Not far from this spot, which is one of multiple popular points within Middle Huaihai Road Commercial Zone, we venture over and see a sizable Christmas tree outside a large mall. The scene, replete with selfie-takers and cuddled lovers, is not different from one I would expect in the U.S. It also is not immune to my proclivity to photo-bomb:

Chad Higgenbottom Christmas Shanghai
The author is the fellow in the dark sweater to the right, making these poor girls’ groupie either more or less memorable, depending on their sense of humor

By the end of the night, we’re tired but full of Christmas spirit. I think I’m ready to face my first Christmas away from home, away from tradition, away from those I’ve always spent it with…

Monday, December 25, 9 am — French Concession, Hengshan Lu

When I arrive at the Hengshan Church building to set up for the day’s service, the lights aren’t yet turned on. I am privileged instead to see the morning sun painting light and shadow upon the walls and pews. Today, many hundreds of expats, representing as many as a hundred nationalities, will gather in this hall to participate in a tradition that transcends ethnic, national, or even family rituals: the Christmas Day church gathering.

Chad Higgenbottom Christmas Shanghai

Shanghai Community Fellowship, the particular body of which I am a part, rents the building from a Chinese church. Before and after our service, several Shanghainese Christians pray fervently at the front altar. A friend tells me that the Chinese church’s own Christmas Eve service was so popular that the line to get in extended from the door to the metro station, a distance of a few hundred meters. Perhaps the popularity of services like this one is part of the reason for the CCP and some common people’s alarm about “religious celebrations,” leading to strange scenes like elderly people chanting “Say no to Christmas” and an entire classroom saying “Reject Western holidays.” But I think these scenes will only reinforce Chinese Christians’ faith and their dependence on one another.

Although I cannot yet confirm, some friends have told me that some Christmas lights will linger as late as spring. That seems a bit extreme, but if true, I guess you could say that the Christmas season is lengthier in China than even in the U.S. (who but Clark Griswold would want to be known as the guy too lazy to take down his house lights until after the snow thaws?). Christmas in Shanghai has been an experience that will be hard to forget. It may not be Middlesex, but I’ll cherish it all the same.

For me, my holiday events aren’t quite at an end. Tonight, I’ll be participating at a jam session at Shake, a vintage Shanghai dive, as I’ve been asked to play and sing a few Christmas tunes. After that, the transition to the forthcoming New Year’s celebration, China-style, can begin in earnest.

And like so, I’ll have cleared at least one hurdle in an expatriate’s initiation: the first Christmas abroad. Still, being in an international city such as Shanghai, I can’t help but think an asterisk should be placed beside my accomplishment. Maybe next year I’ll have to try spending the holidays in an inland province. I have a feeling plenty of adventures await.

We’re running a series of Christmas in China stories this week. Click here for more.