The Holiday Season

With the holiday season officially beginning this week – the early appearance of retail store displays notwithstanding – it’s a good time to talk about the winter holidays and how they were celebrated among the Chinese students in America. As with many other aspects of American culture, the Boxer Indemnity Scholars took to US holidays, celebrating them with as much enthusiasm as their American counterparts. American holidays like Thanksgiving and Christian holidays like Christmas were probably familiar to the Chinese students, especially those who had studied in missionary schools, but the first time these students participated in traditional holiday celebrations was upon their arrival in the United States.  Towards the beginning of the Boxer Indemnity Scholar period, the vast majority of Chinese students in America celebrated the holidays with various American hosts, but as the students became more and more familiar with the American holiday season, holiday parties tended to become more club- and Chinese-focused.


In the earlier half of the 1910s, holiday get-togethers among the Chinese students were often at the invitation of prominent American sponsors of Chinese education in the US. The tradition of American hosting and sponsorship of Chinese students goes back to the 1872 Chinese Educational Mission created by Yung Wing. The Chinese students who went to America through that initiative were younger than the Boxer Indemnity Scholars; most were middle or high school aged. They came to America to attend preparatory high schools before matriculating at Yale. Due to their young age, as well as the safety concerns of the Chinese government and the students’ families, the CEM Scholars were placed in homestays with American sponsor families. Although host families were not an official component of the Boxer Indemnity Scholar program, several families who had served as homestays in the 1870s also sponsored and hosted students in the early 1900s. For example, E. J. Chu and the Huang siblings traveled to Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts in December of 1912 to stay with Berijah and Mary Kagwin, a couple who had also hosted Chinese students in 1880. Previous CEM Scholars even sent their children to study in America and stay with their previous host families; the Dickermans taught both CEM Scholars and their sons, and the Kagwins hosted not only E. J. Chu and his classmates, but the son of Zhou Wanpeng, who had stayed with the Kagwins in 1880 (Rhoads, 2011, p. 212).


Drawing from that tradition, Thanksgiving and Christmas parties for the Boxer Indemnity Scholars were normally held by an American “sponsor” family and served to strengthen the bonds between the Chinese students and their American hosts. For example, this wonderful description of a 1911 Christmas gathering in Webster, Massachusetts took place at the home of Mrs. H. N. Slater, a member of one of the leading families of the town (Chinese Students’ Monthly, Vol. 7). The students, 27 in total, spent the week playing “football, skating and tramping in the woods”, as well as touring the town of Webster and its factories and spending the evenings “gather[ing] together by the fire, talking, singing and playing all kinds of games” (Chinese Students’ Monthly, Vol. 7). As a note, if anyone knows what the described “fruit-basket” game or “pig-grunt-pig” is, I’d love to know!

Seven years later, the tradition of holiday parties hosted by American friends of the Chinese students was still going strong. The Chinese Students’ Club at Troy, New York, for example, had three students who did not travel during the holidays, so they were hosted by the Cowees, a prominent Baptist family in Troy and patron of the Chinese Students’ Christian Association (Baptist Missionary Magazine, Vol. 88; Chinese Students’ Christian Journal, Vol. 8). The party wasn’t as successful as the previously discussed Webster party, as December of 1918 was apparently very warm, so ice skating had to be moved off the schedule. However, the students had a wonderful time chatting around the Christmas tree, and met again on New Year’s Day for another party. The Wisconsin Club celebrated New Year’s Eve with the Leisers, and the Chisholms of Cleveland also hosted a Christmas party for 80 guests, including the Chinese Students’ Club of Cleveland, at which the guests received “about a hundred useful yet inexpensive presents” (per person?? I hope they were pencils or something . . .). And in 1919, the Vice President of Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio invited the members of the Chinese Students’ Club to a holiday party on December 17 (Chinese Students’ Monthly, Vol. 16).


However, in the latter half of the 1910s, some Chinese Clubs began to celebrate the holidays on their own, without being hosted by their American sponsors. The Harvard Chinese Students’ Club had a Christmas party in 1918 with music and gifts from Santa Claus, who appears to have been played by a female student, Miss S. A. Chiu (Chinese Students’ Monthly, Vol. 14). The previously mentioned Wisconsin Club also celebrated Christmas alone, holding a banquet with “homestyle dishes”, although the Chinese Students’ Monthly doesn’t clarify whether these were American homestyle or Chinese homestyle. Regardless, this willingness to strike out on their own and host their own American-style celebrations for these American holidays highlights both the growing numbers of Chinese students in America and their increasing Westernization. They didn’t need to celebrate with American sponsors because there were enough of them to constitute a party and the guests were familiar enough with the trappings of an American Christmas or Thanksgiving celebration to plan one on their own.

We can therefore see that as the Chinese students in America became more knowledgeable about and more comfortable with American holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was more and more common to see non-sponsored celebrations by the local Chinese Clubs, rather than invitations to Christmas and New Year’s parties hosted by prominent Americans. In fact, many returned Chinese students continued to celebrate these American holidays in their adulthood in China, despite the fact that, as a New World animal, “there [may have] be[en] some difficulty in securing the indispensable turkey” (World Chinese Students’ Journal, Vol. 3).


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