21 December 2016 by Roy Preece
Su Yen’s Four Christmases.
Christmas is the defining event of European civilisation. Other nations are fascinated by Christmas, but only up to a point. Between the extremes of worshipping many gods or none at all, Chinese people are likely to miss the true spirit of Christmas. Europeans believed Christmas was a unique event, when the world stood still and the eternal entered into our frenetic time-bound existence.
We have moved on of course. We are not an obviously religious society, but something of that uniqueness still clings to the Christmas festival in a way it does to no other. Time does seem to stand still a little, and we relax at Christmas, and shrug off our everyday work, with a clearer conscience than on any other holiday. As Shane Black recently said, perhaps a little inelegantly, ‘Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days, a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives.’
Christmas is sometimes compared to Chinese New Year Festival. Great efforts are made for families to get together. Special foods are prepared. But we don’t make fire and noise to keep away evil spirits or new year monsters. We don’t prepare food for ancestors, or sit up all night to get rid of bad luck ; though dedicated persons will go to midnight church services on Christmas Eve to welcome the good news of Christmas. There is no element of fear in Christmas; none of the sense of guilt and loss of the Easter Passion; and our ghosts only rise at Hallowe’en. Christmas is supposed to be joyful.
Christmas can, though, be a lonely time for many, including students from overseas who have to stay on in England. Their exclusion from the universal celebrations emphasises their sense of alienation. Any home sickness is amplified. Future achievement seems far off. The English winter weather is depressing. Communal university facilities are empty, or even shut.
Su Yen was lucky, then, just before her first Christmas in England, to meet her Russian chum from New Zealand on Oxford rail station. In an uncaring world, they “propped each other up” with their dreams of unrealised futures. It may perhaps sound a little flippant to say they tried to find the meaning of Christmas in a Christmas Pudding, but in a way they did find it as they bought, cooked and shared the unfamiliar pudding. The mysterious pudding gave to their Christmas companionship a little extra magic for that special day, though they didn’t know that the tradition of the Christmas pudding in England is far older than Victorian Christmas trees and cards, and goes back to at least the fourteenth century.
By the time of her second Christmas in England Su Yen had discovered English poetry. In the relaxing spirit of Christmas, she abandoned her professional studies over the holiday and immersed herself for a while in another world of ideas and history, which later formed the theme of Dear Su Yen. She magically found that these voices from the past seemed very alive to her and sympathetic, especially her favourite, Heraclitus. As a hard-working and conscientious student, it was only Christmas, I think, that could have enabled her to take this very special ‘time out of time’.
Su Yen’s third Christmas, like the second, was a learning Christmas. She was now living in a welcoming YWCA hostel in leafy North Oxford and had made a loyal and congenial friend there. By chance she was given as a Christmas present a book which made a deep impression. The book was Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. Using a conversational style, the book covers all those centuries when the Church was the principal patron of European art and building, and religious events were the principal subjects; when beauty was goodness and art was beauty. Over the Christmas period, as Su Yen devoured this book, as she had the poetry, laboriously looking up the meanings of big words and strange terms, she became aware of the great meaning which had flowed down the centuries from that very first Christmas.
Then, on her fourth English Christmas, Su Yen was over-joyed to realise one of her dreams of England at last. A kind elderly lady who worked with her in the University Church gift shop invited Su Yen to her family’s Christmas Day Dinner. It was a dreaming day: the cosy house, the decorations, the Christmas tree, the traditional Christmas food, the family atmosphere – and a beautiful white cat. Her real English Christmas evoked in Su Yen, as Christmas should, feelings of good will to all people, as she concludes in Dear Su Yen: “to welcome all the Christmases to come with the magic of me bringing pleasure to light hopes for other people’s dreams, as I have received these years, bit by bit for years and years, till one day people’s hearts are all full of magic and hopes all over the world.”
We wish you all a Merry Christmas!