‘Christmas Blossoms’ Is a Tale of Hope Amid Hardship
BOOK REVIEW: In novella, readers learn how the Chinese artist captures the wonder of the birth of Jesus — and proclaims the message of the solemnity.
Written by Priscilla Smith McCaffrey
Illustrated by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Sophia Institute Press, 2021
64 pages, $17.95
In a land far away but in a not-so-distant time, Zhang Jian dreams. Not the kind of dreams when you close your eyes — Jian dreams of the past. Now an old man, the once master artist of interior glass painting remembers the Christmases of his boyhood. Born in 1940 to a Catholic family in China, Jian reaches back in time and recalls his parents welcoming the French-Canadian priests who, with lanterns in hand, caroled outside their home following midnight Mass. He can almost taste the molasses snow treats the one priest made just for the children. And, imagining the inside of his home, Jian still feels the warmth of joy and good cheer that had once enveloped him — and, he recollects the stories told of the Child in the manger. These cherished and inseparable times of Christmas and family would soon painfully vanish. The 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution upended all that the young boy once knew. The believers — among them, his parents and the priests who had sacrificed so much to bring the news of the Savior to China — were sent away, or worse. Jian carefully tucks away the idealized memories of family Christmases — not to be shared, but protected in his heart.
Many years later, the symbols of Christmas inspire Jian at the glassworks factory. Loading his special bent brush with paint, the artist dips it through the small opening of one glass ornament after another and paints the insides. Winter wonderlands, beckoning hearths, snowmen, and, best of all, as far as Jian is concerned, Nativity scenes emerge and sparkle. Christmas is no longer deemed an evil cult in his country, but an opportunity for commercial profit in meeting the demands of customers from the West. When his younger co-workers turn to him to understand better the significance of Christmas, a cautious Jian explains it as a Western myth, a myth the artists find wanting. A child born in a humble stable who grows up to die a dishonorable death, betrayed by his own people, was not the stuff of legends, they say, in spite of his working miracles, doing good, and even rising from the dead. In Jian’s heart, he knows his Christ is so much more, but courageous words fail him.
By mid-December, the factory work for Christmas slows. There is no longer time to ship orders to the West. The aging Jian, who now serves as a helper to a new generation of artists, accepts an invitation for tea at the apartment of Lin Renshu, factory supervisor and longtime friend. Renshu sees in the eyes of his companion a change. When asked what he is thinking, Jian speaks the words he has longed to share for decades, “My Christmas, my family.” There is no turning back. Tonight, Jian shares with his friend the true story of Christmas and his love for Jesus, the newborn King.
Readers follow a more confident Jian, some days later, to confession and later travel with him to midnight Mass at the very cathedral he had so long ago attended with his family that the government has allowed to open for now. In front of the altar surrounded by plum blossoms, the flower treasured by the Chinese for its beauty and resilience, Jian humbly receives Holy Communion.
There is one more matter to which Jian must attend. On this solemnity, he will decorate a final glass ornament, the last testament of an old, dying man. With careful strokes of his brush, the artist captures the wonder of the birth of Jesus, the joy Jian has found in him, and the promise of new life for those yet to discover him. The final brush marks of Zhiang Jian, on this snowy Christmas Day, proclaim Hope.
Author Priscilla Smith McCaffrey worked as a research assistant to Jesuit Father John Hardon while studying sacred doctrine at St. John’s University in New York. She now podcasts at CatholicMediaApostolate.com. McCaffrey has written a novella that engages readers — both young and old — on many levels.
Illustrator Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs, a painter in the perennial tradition of Western sacred art, emboldens the novella with rich red backgrounds — the color of joy in Chinese culture — that contrast with the oval-framed sketches advances the story. Beautiful calligraphy headings grace each chapter, with translations appended.
This tale of Zhang Jian gives readers a glimpse of how daily life radically changed for the faithful after the Communist Revolution and yet how, despite oppression, Christmas continues to stir hearts.
As Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, noted in an editorial review, “In this charming novel we are reminded of the flavor of Christmas even during so difficult times, like the ones of the Cultural Revolution in China. We have always to look at the Lord, even when we are in deep trouble. He is our strength and our hope.”
Kerry Crawford writes from Pittsburgh.
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