“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

A Christmas Day Tale from Old China….Vanya Oakes Explaines the Nativity & Santa Claus to her Shanghainese Tailor in 1933

Posted: December 25th, 2017 | No Comments »

There’s a bit of a tradition on China Rhyming of providing an old China Christmas tale every Christmas Day. In the past we’ve had a 1930s Christmas with Carl Crow sharing Christmas dinner with some vegetarian Buddhist monks that did however involve some ancient eggs and sharksfin soup. We have also had the story of the Christmas Errol Flynn spent in Shanghai. And, finally, Anthony Abbott’s 1930s tale of spending Christmas with the “Christian General” warlord.

Well this year’s tale is from the American “lady reporter” Vanya Oakes and comes from her 1943 memoir White Man’s Folly. It’s the early 1930s, Oakes is recently arrived in Shanghai from America. She has just set up home in a nice flat and has invited over her tailor to measure her for a Christmas gown…

“I came in one day and found the tailor engaged in scrutinizing one of my Christmas cards. It was a picture of the manger, and Mary and the Infant Jesus, and the Three Wise Men. ‘Missy, what thing this?’ said the tailor, unabashed at rummaging about in my things. ‘Before have plenty time to see in other misses’ house, tree, and Santa Claus and white rain. But this fashion – no see.’

With zeal worthy a more promising venture I launched into an interpretation of the Nativity. At the conclusion the tailor shook his head cheerfully and said: ‘No savvy, I savvy these Master will bring present, all same Chinese New Year. I savvy this lady belong mother small baby. But Missy, this no belong proper house – this for horse.’

I explained that the lady was very poor, so poor that she had no house.

‘But Missy,’ he objected, ‘where father? No have got job?’

Swallowing hastily, I stammered there was no father.

The tailor stared at me with a kind of contemptuous horror. Of course he had always known that foreigners were stupid. But this was beyond everything. How could even a foreigner suppose there could be a baby without a father?

Some red in the face I tried to explain further. I got wound up in the Immaculate Conception. The tailor’s eyes widened, bugged out. Too bad. Crazy Missy, talking about making baby without father.

Slowly, with severity, he laid the Christmas card down on he table. ‘I no savvy how fashion this small baby so good – only beggar baby,’ he said disdainfully. ‘So poor no can catch proper house.’ I grew flustered, trying hurriedly to make out a respectable case for Christianity. He kept murmuring ‘Small baby in a horse house,’ accusingly. In desperation I gave up. It meant laving him to think ill – very ill indeed – of Christianity. I couldn’t seem to help it.

We did better on Santa Claus. There are several Chinese myths in which gods ride through space on clouds or waves, so it did not strike him as peculiar that Santa Claus should gallop through the ether behind his ‘horse with horns’. We pranced along splendidly therefore until we came to the chimney. But as I began coming down the chimney to put all the nice toys on the tree, the tailor’s shocked gaze pulled me up short.

‘Missy’, he said, with terrifying logic, ‘no can do this fashion – his stomach too fat – get inside, no can get out.’

Wildly I stated that Santa’s stomach was an illusion; where it appeared large and round and solid it was, actually, a balloon which telescoped when convenient.

‘But Missy,’ said the tailor, eyeing me dubiously, ‘he get very dirty. Inside all fire dirt.’

It was unfair – and hopeless. I conceded that Santa Claus would get a little dirty, but that it was part of the trade – just as the tailor occasionally pricked his finger with a needle. Anyhow, Santa Claus would only get a very little dirty, because he was, on the whole, a very clever man.

‘No,’ said the tailor wearily, ‘I think he get plenty dirty.”



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