TO spend Christmas in China away from the hard, crisp cold of a New England winter challenges an American's ability to endure the antique rhythms of the Orient. A Changsha Christmas put my wife and two young daughters, 3 and 5, away from home, surrounded by foreignness. There would be no mistletoe, no wreaths with red ribbons, no holly against a white mantle.

There would be only China, struggling to modernize, straining its limited resources to build, belching its coal smoke with desperate profligacy into the sooty air.

Since that Christmas in Hunan Province, I have had visitors from Changsha in my Massachusetts home. They are comfortable visitors, full of grace and sociability, quickly at ease when they know they are with friends. When you are in their country, they reach out to you.

Bound in family, the Chinese sympathize with what they perceive as your loneliness. When Christmas approached, my students who knew the phrase Merry Christmas offered the greeting well before the holiday.

``Merry Christmas, Teacher Rettman,'' they would say.

``Not yet,'' I would tell them, and they would giggle.

``You must tell us about the holiday,'' they would insist. ``Is there a feast at Christmas?''

``Oh, yes. Often families have turkeys, a very large bird that is very good.'' I would size the bird with my hands.

``Wah!'' they'd respond with disbelief, ``so big.''

``Well, a turkey is a large bird, and it is the custom.''

``What will you do on Christmas?'' they asked.

``Oh, I don't know,'' I told them, ``but I must go Christmas shopping.''

``Oh then we must take you,'' they told me, glee in their faces.

On a morning close to Christmas, two students appeared on my doorstep. We walked to the bus stop, squeezed ourselves onto the crowded bus, and headed to downtown Changsha, where a lethargic cool dampness hung in the air.

Crowds of people sharing a sameness of dress and a patience of purpose milled around us. We alighted from the bus near a free market situated in a narrow, bending street.

Strange foods lined the curb, all absorbing the local air filled with the fumes of soft coal. A large, shallow woven basket was piled with river shrimps, which, still alive, twitched and jumped. I saw potato noodles, long, wide, and transparent looking. Pigs' intestines hung on a hook, hind quarter of dog, lotus root, big as a club, bamboo shoots.

The narrow road was filled with people rediscovering the preoccupation of China - food. One of my students bargained with a fruit seller for me, and we got 11 sweet oranges for a dollar fifty.

At the tourist hotel downtown, we visited a special shop reserved for foreigners. Usually, Chinese are not allowed in such shops, but my students accompanied me without incident, probably because I was known as a foreign teacher. Embroidered silk blouses hung on racks. Jade and intricately carved ivory jewelry lay in glass cases.

Examining the goods with the eyes of practiced hagglers alert to flaws, my two students moved through the shop. They brought me to a case in which the famous double-embroidered silks of Changsha were spread out - cranes, peacocks, peonies, bamboo, all gaudily alive in gleaming silk. Only a few artisans had mastered this sewing, which presented equally elaborate but different images on both sides of the embroidery.

``Very famous,'' my students assured me, their voices filled with pride, ``very famous.'' Warming to the holiday spirit, they urged, ``This should be a gift for Mrs. Rettman.''

I had to explain to them that I was only an underpaid teacher, and my wife would understand if I brought home a humbler gift. I settled on a cloisonn'e box of good quality, so my students assured me, but unquestionably I lost a bit of face.

When we returned to the campus, the university nursery had put a potted evergreen on our front porch. The foreign-affairs officer ran up to me beaming, explaining it was the college's gift on this important holiday. He helped us move it into our living room, the first living Christmas tree we had ever had.

On Christmas Eve, my girls cut crepe paper stars. When they went upstairs to bed, convinced by us that Santa knew they were in China, I stood at the bottom of the stairs and filled our cold flat with ho, ho, hos. We put our gifts under the tree - for Ann a wind-up tin deer that jumped; for Alison, an abacus.

As the evening moved forward in its peculiar silence, a group of young teachers from an American literature class my wife taught paid a visit. Most were gong nong bing, worker, peasant, soldiers.

During the cultural revolution, these workers had been selected to teach in university as much for their revolutionary ardor as for their scholarship. Caught now in a backlash, they were being prepared in my wife's special class for an examination that would decide their careers as teachers.

This night Mr. Zhou, their spokesman, announced, ``We have brought lights for your tree, as you do in America. We hope it makes you happy.'' My wife and I assured him the lights were just what we needed. As we looked at the delicate lanterns painted with courtesans and mandarins from China's feudal past, we praised their beauty, but we joked that they might be counterrevolutionary.

``Oh, it's all right for you,'' we were assured, ``you are foreigners.'' Our apartment filled with laughter as we sat in the living room, a Christmas crush of people at home with us in Changsha. Jingle bells followed in both Chinese and English, two halves of the world joining in holiday song.

On Christmas Day, late in the afternoon, an official entourage that included the university president visited us. The president wore an overcoat with a fur collar draped over his shoulders like a cape. He had a Duncanesque scarf wrapped around his neck and wore his Mao cap at a jaunty angle.

The group brought us sesame crackers, a big bar of chocolate, and two bags of candy. We served them cookies, and we drank a Christmas toast. Conversation had to be equal to the occasion, so the university president asked me for a criticism of the school. ``What must be done to improve? Let us hear from our esteemed Western teacher.''

I had not been in China long enough to escape chagrin at being asked for a Christmas critique, so my speech was short and full of praise. There would be no criticisms from me on Christmas, nor were any expected. The visit ended in chat and geniality as the entourage swept out the door.

My wife and I chuckled at the brief drama our conversation with the university president had offered. Our girls were busy with the candy wrapped in rice paper, paper you ate, as I found out one day from a student as I labored to remove it. And Christmas evening settled down in China, silent, peaceful, like a boat moving to dock.

ICAN remember no Christmas so plain and so silent, so uncrowded and so graceful. Outside, the damp, cold Changsha evening settled down. Inside our unheated rooms, we snuggled under thick Chinese quilts warm as toast. No final carol broke upon the air; only the peace of China profound in the silent night.

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