Joseph and Pauline Pace expected that Christmas 1987 would come and go without a tree, without the trappings, without the beloved songs - except as they themselves sang them. They did, in fact, have an extraordinary Christmas that was featured on a television program aired throughout China.
The TV coverage crowned a surprising Christmas season that found them with three Christmas trees, an apartment decorated with bits of cotton "snow," a party with oodles of trappings and the dear familiar carols - sung intriguingly in the vastly different Chinese tone scale.The Paces spent last year's holiday season in Nanning, the capital city of Guang-xi, a southern province in the People's Republic of China. In all, they were in the communist country for six months, teaching English under the Retired Experts Program.
The Chinese government invites retired couples from Western countries to spend time - at their own expense - in the People's Republic sharing their fields of expertise with the Chinese people, said Pace, a retired physician. His wife is a former teacher of English, speech, drama and music, but had not taught formally since her marriage. The couple has been involved for many years in international relief work and has traveled extensively.
"They (the Chinese) have an ongoing demand for Western technology and this is one of the ways they accomplish it," Pace said.
The Paces were serving a mission in Hong Kong for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they were recruited to participate in the Retired Experts program.
Originally they expected to spend three months in Nanning, teaching English to college graduates. The success of the first three-month stint led to a second, Pace said.
It took some time, Mrs. Pace said, for the couple to feel their way to a comfortable method of teaching once they were established in Nanning.
"Our first group of students was apples, oranges and bananas. Their levels of speaking English differed greatly, with some speaking very advanced English and some very basic."
They divided the class based on skill levels and spent afternoons and Saturdays tutoring the students who had the least ability to speak English, she said.
At the end of the three-month period, the Paces returned to Hong Kong.
"No one expected that we would go back," she said. "And we had only really begun to understand how to deal with the situation and wanted to be able to apply those concepts."
Only two weeks passed before they were back in Nanning at the invitation of the medical college.
"We lived at the medical college," Mrs. Pace said. "It is a very lovely campus, but has unheated, un-air-conditioned buildings. It was either cold as cold or hot as Hades." The Paces learned from the local population to dress in layers to accommodate the weather, especially the Siberian winds that sometimes blew cold air into the southern province, which borders on Vietnam.
They also learned to cope with old blackboards pocked by humidity, with chalk that disintegrated in the damp and with the lack of visual aids they were accustomed to in America.
Their classes now consisted solely of medical students, but they became acquainted with many on the campus, including 27 blacks from 14 African countries and others from such countries as Bangladesh and Nepal - all students continuing their advanced education in China.
Some students voluntarily attended the Paces' personal worship services, although they did not go into the country as missionaries and did not talk about religious themes unless they were brought up by their Chinese hosts.
Pace said he noted evidence that the Chinese Communists are relaxing constraints on citizens and on the press. "They seem to see this as necessary to modernization of their country."
With the confidence gained in their first teaching experience and with a group more prepared in English, the Paces tried some innovations. They gave each of their Chinese students an English name - borrowed, fittingly, from their own family.
That gave the Paces an indirect contact with home and their students an opportunity to use their imaginations to step temporarily outside their own culture and language each day.
"As we called roll each day, it gave them an opportunity to pronounce American names. They loved them," Mrs. Pace said. "They couldn't conceive of one couple having seven children and 35 grandchildren. They all came from small families."
Considerate college officials had realized that as Christians, the Paces might want to celebrate Christmas in their accustomed way. They were offered Dec. 25 off if they wanted, and officials even said they would prepare a party if the visiting instructors wanted it.
The Americans would have chosen to carry on business as usual on Christmas day, but things began to take an unexpected turn. Their students became interested in Christmas.
"At the first of November, as we got acquainted, they wanted to learn Christmas carols. We asked party officials for permission to teach them carols. They quickly learned to love singing American songs," said Mrs. Pace.
And three of the students were associated with the Forest Research Institute about 20 miles from Nanning. The 1,500-acre site, second largest of its kind in China, includes a lake created by damming a river, Pace said.
It created a natural source of Christmas trees - actually, three of them, each larger than the last.
The Paces left the forest with the first tree after being invited for a visit. They assumed their 2-foot pine would at least be symbolic of Christmas trees past.
"Then as it got closer to Christmas, they decided our tree wasn't large enough and they brought a 4-foot pine of a different variety," Mrs. Pace said. This little tree bloomed with "whatever we had to put on it," she said, including lights borrowed from a hotel, which normally used them for a January festival.
Then one evening, there was a knock on the door, and three of the forestry institute students stood on the doorstep with a 10-foot pine, its roots still intact and balled. They had brought it 20 miles by bus, then by bicycle to the Pace's apartment to be the centerpiece for their Christmas celebration.
"That was typical. We just went from one high to another. One thing just led to another," she said. "One of the most touching things anyone ever did was to find us a poinsettia - in full bloom."
One of their students undertook a painting of Santa Claus, using a postcard version for a model. Bits of cotton appeared on windows to replicate Christmastime snow in America, and a party was planned. Tables were decorated with red paper and greenery - a custom foreign to the Chinese.
"Casey," a retired Chinese Army colonel and one of their most devoted students, had friends in television and he told them the story of the visiting American English instructors and the Christmas observance that was taking shape.
"We expected one man with a home-type camera," Pace said. "They arrived with two cameras and the most sophisticated equipment we've ever seen." The story was aired nationally and has since been shown a number of times on Chinese television, in both Chinese and English, Pace said.
The crew spent more than 10 days, filming more than 22 hours of the Paces' interactions with their students and especially the Christmas observance.
On Christmas Day, with the TV crew added to the guest list, the Paces were guests of honor at a party that blended American and Chinese customs in a unique celebration. A 10-course meal was served to 35 students and 15 other guests including Nanning city and college officials.
"I've never eaten such Chinese food," Mrs. Pace recalled. "And they wouldn't let me near the kitchen. When they left, it was cleaned down to the floor."
With the 10-foot Christmas tree as the focus of activities in the building's "cadre center," a one-hour program spotlighted seven Chinese students singing solo renditions of favorite yuletide carols, as well as the standard community Christmas sing that caps most American celebrations.
"It was one of the most satisfying spiritual experiences I have ever had," Pace said. "We had the spoken word, music, tears, love - and none of the usual distractions - in our Christmas. There were small envelopes with a card or a picture for presents."
The genuine outpouring of the spirit "made last something that is indescribable," he said.
This Christmas season, back in Salt Lake City, the Paces continue to hear regularly from many of their Chinese students. Several of them expect to come to Utah to attend schools in the next few years.
When they get together, it will be strange if the conversation doesn't include memories of that Christmas celebration in Nanning.