Next week is final exams so I've been taking it easy on the kids and teaching classes about Christmas. I play Christmas songs (Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song mostly, since that's the only xmas song I can stand to listen to the requisite 40 times or so I will in the course of teaching all the first year students) and the kids try to fill in missing words on lyric sheets; I pass out candy canes and have them write letters to Santa. One day, a teacher asked me to talk a little more about the origin of Christmas - assuming, I guess, like all Japanese do about all Americans, that I am a Christian of deep faith. I had toyed with the idea in the beginning, but thought it might come off as proselytizing, but on further reflecting, realized clearly there no harm in merely talking about religion.
So after listening to Nat King Cole for the umpteenth time, I write the word "Christmas" on the board and ask the kids what they know about the holiday. They volunteer and I list words like toys, Santa, reindeer, Christmas tree, etc. "Okay," I say, "so maybe when you think of Christmas, these things come to mind."
"But, does anyone know why Christmas is a holiday?"
I think that maybe they just didn't understand the question, so I rephrase it: "Does anyone know what happened on Christmas?"
I pause and, stifling a laugh, take a deep breath. Then I turn to where I've written "Christmas" on the board and underline "Christ" several times. I turn back to the class and ask, cautiously this time, "Do you know who this is?" I wince a little for a few seconds as if anticipating a blow, but fortunately one of the kids says the Japanese name for Christ (kirisuto), and I don't have to freak out completely.
"Okay great, Christ, yes. Jesus Christ. (in a fashion taking His name in vain) Jesus Christ, yes. Now, what happened to Jesus Christ on this day?"
A student raises a hand tentatively and says in Japanese, "That's when he died, right?"
I run my fingers through my hair quite hard. "No." I smile. "In fact, the opposite thing happened. And speak in English."
Another says, "Ah, it's his birthday."
"Yeah, more or less. So, let me tell you the story of his birth."
It turns out that they don't really study world religions, at least not until their junior or senior year of high school. I have a hard time comprehending that these sophomore kids at a high-level high school don't know basic facts about the largest religion in the world, since I learned about Shinto in my 7th grade history class. This is kind of insane. So I decide to right this wrong. I am here to bring them the good news, as it were.
I whip out some Christmas picture books and proceed to tell the story of the Nativity. In the course of trying to explain to the kids why it was such a big deal that a baby was born in a manger in some far-off place thousands of years ago, I come to appreciate to an extent how ridiculous missionaries must feel on their first day off in some African village. Trying to explain a religion to someone completely unfamiliar with the stories just reveals how ridiculous they can sound. I see a new expression of bafflement cross the faces of the students for each phrase like "son of God" or "angels" or "three kings" that comes out of my mouth. By the end of the story, I am rather baffled at what's coming out of my mouth as well. You'd have to be a person of unshakeable faith to speak in any way convincingly about these things without feeling a bit silly or embarrassed. I am not that person.
This reaches a sort of crescendo while I'm using the tiny statuettes of the Nativity scene to act out the different character's parts. After a long explanation of the relationship between Mary and Joseph where I've been holding up their two figures, I actually look down at what I'm holding and see that in fact what I'm holding is not Joseph but some random shepherd. Upon closer inspection, I realize that on top of the general discernible differences between the two figures, the shepherd actually has a damn sheep hung around his neck. So, not only have I been telling a rather sacrilegious story about the unconsummated love of Mary and one shepherd from Bethelehem, but I've convinced all the kids that Jesus' father walked around with a sheep strung around his neck at all times. I break and just laugh really hard.
I give up in the end and just have them write their letters to Santa. I tell them about Santa's list; presents for the good children and coal for the bad. This is much easier to talk to the kids about. It doesn't make me embarrassed as an American or feel ridiculous at all. As silly as Santa's story is, at least we all agree none of it is true.