Christmas in July on the Yangtze

In the US, she takes down her holiday decorations promptly. But in China she leaves Christmas lights up all year – for a reason.

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In America, holidays quickly lose their splendor. Once the special day has passed, it's time to put away decorations and return to the no-frills working world.

But in China, holidays hang on. Banners proclaim the Oct. 1 National Day well into November. Department-store Christmas trees gather dust until February. Couplets written for Spring Festival peel from outdoor entryways all the way into fall.

For the Chinese, taking down decorations sweeps away good fortune and erases the happiness that holidays bring. Thus decorations remain untouched until they fade from sight or eventually flutter to the ground.

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When I first arrived in China as an English teacher, this concept of leaving up decorations warred against my upbringing. My mother taught me the tackiness of after-holiday ornamentations. Her greatest disdain was for Christmas wreaths and outdoor tree lights that plagued the neighborhood all through the summer.

In America, my attitude follows my mother's. But in China, it's Christmas in July over the Yangtze, and I'm to blame.

The small vocational college where I teach English is located next to China's famous river, the Yangtze. Like a majority of my Chinese colleagues, I live on the campus in one of the faculty apartment buildings. And it so happens that my second-story apartment balcony overlooks the ancient Yangtze waterway.

Day and night, rusty barges loaded with lumber and coal slowly chug by. Dilapidated fishing sampans also slip quietly through the muddy water as the owners cast out or pull in their tidy nets.

In the hot, sticky summer or in the damp, chilly winter, the boatmen can be seen washing their clothes in river water scooped into plastic basins. They squat on the decks of their vessels and diligently scrub their worn shirts and trousers. Then they hang them to dry over stools or from sagging ropes tied across the deck.

During mealtimes, woks appear over portable metal stoves, and soon vegetables and meat are sizzling. The boatmen quickly consume their bowlfuls of rice topped with hot stir-fries. Afterward, some slouch against deck furnishings and catch a quick nap. Others return to their duties.

After watching such daily river routines from my comfortable second-story vantage point, I know that life on the Yangtze is not easy.

Perhaps this is why, come December, a majority of my yuletide decorating time is spent on the balcony. Armed with Christmas lights, I climb through the enclosed balcony's sliding windows and balance myself against the security bars attached to the building's outside walls. I then cautiously weave, tie, drape, and position strand after strand of colored lights.

Passersby stand below to watch the crazy foreign teacher perform her Spider-Man tricks high above their heads. They shout out warnings to be careful and tsk at my foolhardy actions.

I appreciate their concern, but it's the river folk I keep in mind. I'm hoping this display of lights will bring a little cheer to their hard lives as they cruise up and down the Yangtze. Here, at least, will be one spot along the shore that promises something other than mundane darkness.

These balcony lights dazzle all through December, announce the Chinese New Year in January or February, usher in the week-long May Day holiday, and howl at the full moon on Mid-Autumn Festival night.

They flash, sparkle, and glimmer throughout the year because my desire to keep them up is greater than my itch to take them down.

Students, neighbors, and colleagues comment on their cheerfulness. Children anxiously await their appearance at dusk. And I imagine the river folk, on their midnight water journeys, searching the shoreline to find the stranger's glitzy outdoor show.

If leftover holiday decorations still elicit a spirit of warmth and happiness, why remove them? Let others pack away their festive garlands and lights, but in my neck of the woods, it's Christmas in July over the Yangtze, and I'm proud of it.

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