A life-changing move to China introduced the Stallings to the complicated workings of another culture while simplifying the message of Christmas.
“We went in 1996 with our three kids. At the time they were 6, 2 and five months,” said Patty Stallings. “We thought we would go for a year.”
One year quickly became two and two became eight. Today, they have resided predominately in China since 1996. Patty and Sam Stallings said they fell in love with the students and the educational environment.
“We have done a lot of different things in China,” Patty said. “Everything from teaching at a University—“
“—To teaching at elementary schools, middle schools and high schools,” Sam inserted.
Continued Patty, “Training teachers is a big part of what we do now. We mentor new cross cultural instructors.”
Chinese students eagerly welcomed the Stallings’ English lessons.
“Every student wants to learn English so we have been really well received,” Patty said. “They give a lot of respect to teachers.”
Learning English is just as important for Chinese students as knowing about the cultures behind the language.
“They are always wanting to embrace anything they can learn about other cultures,” Sam said. “Everything from music to entertainment to holidays. China is a very commemorate-centered culture.”
A desire to learn and a readiness to listen has allowed the Stallings to share much of their life.
“When we first went to China, they knew very little about Christmas. It was kind of fun to share the history of Christmas. Through that we were able to share the real foundational belief,” Patty said.
The last 15 years have seen Christmas become more widely known in the Chinese culture. Christmas Eve parties are becoming a tradition for Chinese youth. Sam said the parties are more social events than a celebration.
“It resembles more our New Year’s Eve festivities. Friends gather together to play games and spend time together,” Patty said. “It certainly is not a widespread event. In the villages, people probably do not realize Christmas has come.”
City department stores reflect the country’s burgeoning interest in Christmas.
“The first five years there you had to go and just scrounge for things that would look like some kind of Christmas decoration. You would just make do with what you could find,” Sam said.
Commercialization of Christmas and the West’s influence made decoration shopping easier over the years.
“There is a lot of emphasis placed on Santa Claus … I do not think they have purposively excluded the real meaning of Christmas,” Patty said. “[America’s] emphasis here is on materialistic things for aspects of Christmas and that is what they see.”
Part of China’s interest lies in the country wanting to be involved in world events.
“China, like any other large country, does not want to be left out of anything the world embraces … It is not just an American celebration,” Sam said. “I think that has played in their willingness to grab onto the holiday event.”
The Stallings’ students most often compare Christmas to the Chinese New Year.
“People go home for the new year and there is a long holiday break for schools,” Patty said. “They give gifts and have big feasts. Families get together for family meals.”
America’s new year celebration is date-specific whereas China’s celebration is based on the lunar calendar. Festivities begin near the end of January to early February. Many of the holiday activities are steeped in tradition.
“You sweep out your house for the New Year. The first person who comes to visit you is really significant. Firecrackers are used to scare away the evil spirit,” Patty said.
The Chinese also celebrate New Year’s Day in January.
“Embracing Christmas and the Greco calendar of January first is them wanting to be a part of a collective worldwide event,” Sam said.
New traditions began with each passing Christmas in China. Fellow teachers, students and friends were invited to the Stallings’ apartment to make sugar cookies. Small banana bread loaves were presented to various campus workers as thanks. Even carols were sung for certain locals.
“We caroled to the milk lady, egg lady and vegetable lady. They are always like, ‘What is going on,’” Patty said. “Then one of the teachers will explain Christmas is a very important holiday where we celebrate Christ’s birth … They are always appreciative.”
Christmas Eve became a time devoted to the family.
“Christmas Day then is all about the team and students,” Patty said. “It is a very different kind of focus.”
A simplified Christmas evolved over the years.
“The simplicity of having a group of people around who very much embraced the real meaning and story of Christmas,” Sam said.
He said it was easy to focus on the story of Christmas.
“It gave it more meaning without the glitz to distract. You really were able to focus, with your friends and family, on the true meaning of Christmas.”
A much beloved Stallings family tradition still stands today: tacos for Christmas dinner.
“When we first went to China … making tacos was a big deal because you could not find cheese, lettuce and tomatoes. We had to make our own tortillas. Tacos were a big deal,” Patty said.
“After five years, we were in the U.S. for Christmas and we spent Christmas Day with my family. They made a very traditional Christmas dinner with roast, ham and all the things you think would traditionally fit at Christmas.”
The Stallings children were aghast.
“Our kids were so disappointed,” Patty laughed. “They wanted to know where the tacos were.”
Tacos have remained a tradition over the years. The Stallings have also continued sharing their Christmas beliefs with their students and administrators. Patty said their students have been very accepting of the story of Christmas.
“They have found it a little hard to believe, but the curiosity has been there,” Patty said. “We have not felt we have missed out with the exception of not being with our family. It is a sweet and simple time.”