Christmas, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and the Learning that Occurs When We Connect the Dots


Publication date:

December 22, 2021


What do Christmas and Egyptian hieroglyphics have to do with one another? What connects those two dots? Is there any connection at all? What if I told you that it involves China? Did I get on your curiosity radar?

Curiosity is easily poked, so let me explain and fill in the dots in between. You cannot even guess in your wildest dreams what connects the two. More importantly, why would I even bother writing about it? The motivation is quite simple: it is precisely when we try to connect dots that pop up on our curiosity radar that learning occurs. That learning can be academic and/or inconsequential but it does keep the intellectual compost in our mind moist and fertile.

Let me put another blinking dot on the radar screen: China. Specifically, the China that has just decided that Christmas should no longer be celebrated. Ho, ho, go, what did Santa do to deserve that? And it is not just Christmas that got scratched off the calendar. In fact, Santa is joining the Easter Bunny and a few other beloved characters at the gates to the Middle Kingdom. What on earth is happening? Quite simple: Beijing has decided that Western holidays are no longer to be celebrated in China. No more Halloween, no more Thanksgiving, etc.

With Christmas around the corner, that has put my family in a quandary. Christmas is a big holiday for us, and my daughter is now going to school believing that Santa Claus has been banned from the earth. Who is going to deliver all the presents now that she has been such a good girl all year?

As all other educational institutions, her school and first-grade class are not allowed to celebrate Christmas. More bizarre, they are allowed to celebrate, but not Christmas. They can decorate their classroom and have a party, but Christmas cannot be the theme. So, her teachers have been scratching their heads to come up with an alternative theme. Given the political sensitivity, that theme better not be anything anywhere close to Christmas.

What theme would you suggest? I did not give this question much thought until I started writing this piece. Disbelief in that this could actually be happening got the more devious side of my mind working. I had a bit of fun making up a list of alternative themes, making pun of the whole thing in the process. I better not share the list online. After all, I am living in China and enjoying it quite a bit. Let me just move on to what my daughter’s school came up. Suffice it to say, that theme was not on my list.

What they came up with was ancient Egypt, and the many great inventions that can be traced back to that civilization. The not-so-Christmas party will be one where the kids will walk like Egyptians, in step with the famous Bangles song of the same title. I am not sure if the teachers read the lyrics, because a few lines are quite critical of school. Or was that precisely the point?

With her Santa hat on, my daughter has been practicing that walk for days now, moving her snake-head hands in all directions. The funny thing is that she is doing this in front of our Christmas tree, with Santa and his elves looking on to the budding Cleopatra. To make sure that she does not fall behind on practicing the dance, the school has her record her practice sessions and upload the videos online every day. The thought did occur to me to have her sing a Christmas carol and upload that video to see what would happen, but I backed off when my wife pointed out that I should be a better dad and better role model.

I am not exactly sure how the school got from Christmas to ancient Egypt. I did check the text on the Rosetta Stone, but that did not offer any clues. Perhaps that might have been the point exactly. When you reach far enough back into the past, you will find neutral and non-threatening ground. That is a benefit any country with a very long history has.

Perhaps, it was a veiled attempt at fanning the flames of nationalism by indirectly drawing attention to Chinese civilization and the many inventions itself brought to the world. One would be hard pressed to argue that cane candy is in the same league with the mirror, pyramids, fireworks, and paper money. Makes me wonder what I am going to find in my Christmas stocking this year.

As part of the not-so-Christmas celebrations, the first-graders were to create a poster about an Egyptian invention. If it was a Christmas poster, my daughter would not have needed my help at all. But with this theme, she drew a big blank. All she knew about Egypt were the pyramids of Giza, the golden mask of King Tut, and the mighty Nile as the longest river in the world. When kids draw a blank, this is where dads come in and happily abide.

She had just learned about different forms of communication, from Morse code to braille. I had let her watch a documentary on Louis Braille, and how he had given blind people the gift of reading. Against that backdrop, I thought it could be cool to look at early Egyptian writing. No idea why this popped into my head but it certainly is a topic with a lot of runway for learning. I also figured that no other classmate was going to delve into Egyptian hieroglyphics. All I saw were posters with pyramids and mummies.

If you’ve had a first-grader, you probably can guess what the first thing was that she put on her poster. Exactly: her name written in hieroglyphics with the animals all pointing to the left. The latter, as she told me after surfing the web, is the opposite of the way they show up on most ancient monuments in Egypt. Like modern-day Arabic, Egyptians wrote from right to left and the animal hieroglyphics always looked in the direction of where the text started. I did not know that, and I would still not know it if Beijing had kept Santa doing his thing.

Reading up on a few things with her, we discovered that gods, kings, or anybody important had their names written in a “cartouche” (hieroglyph lingo). To elevate her status, she promptly put her name in parentheses. Curious, she also wrote her mom’s name out and discovered that the five-letter name contained all the animals in the hieroglyphic alphabet. Neither my wife nor I commented on that, knowing that young kids take all the family secrets to school.

On the back of her poster, she reproduced the hieroglyphic alphabet so that her classmates could learn to write their own names in ancient Egyptian. Nothing better than getting the kids actively involved.

Playing with the hieroglyphics, my daughter quickly realized that the letters were all little drawings. As she writes Chinese characters, she was curious if ancient Chinese looked like the Egyptian hieroglyphics. That got us off on another path of learning. No surprise, there is a similarity, so another part of her poster was comparing hieroglyphics with ancient Chinese characters for the same object (e.g., the sun), and the modern-day equivalent. Chinese simplified their characters but retained the ideogram format. In contrast, Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved into an alphabet which the Rosetta Stone help us decipher.

Of course, one can make a quick step to our beloved emojis, today’s equivalent of hieroglyphics. The lower right corner of her poster has a selection of her favorite emojis. With Santa watching on anxiously, my daughter had come full circle in her journey of discovery: from ancient Egypt to the emerging metaverse. In the process, she had learned quite a bit.

To put things a bit in perspective for my daughter, I pointed out that she learned to draw objects well before she knew how to write the corresponding words. Hence, she should not be surprised that the first writings in any ancient civilization anywhere in the world were drawings of what was to be communicated. For example, no matter where they lived in the world, people saw the same sun and drew a sign for it which looks remarkably similar across civilizations. In fact, there has been speculation by some that hieroglyphics might have inspired Chinese characters. Of course, correlation and causation are not exactly the same thing but that went way over my daughter’s head. Even Santa was rolling his eyes. On that one, curiosity definitely killed the cat.

No doubt, and despite being banned this year, I am sure that Santa will agree that my daughter learned quite a bit connecting dots she would not have known had this year’s Christmas just been an ordinary one. The extra-ordinary always peeks our curiosity, and quickly sets us on a path of discovery and learning.

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