Adapting Christmas Traditions in China

My family’s Christmas tradition provided a mobile adaptation to the broader ritual of spending quality time with one’s family members. Given that none of our extended family lived in the same country as us, we had no grandparents’ or aunts’ homes to visit; no large, chaotic hosting obligations to fulfill. Given all this precious vacation period, but none of the chore-some, occasionally dreaded duties that for many of my friends defined their notion of “Christmas,” we made it our own family ritual to leave town. And so, as “real” families around Australia assembled en masse around the barbeque and the pool, the Antipodean take on the warm open fires and snow-white roofs of Winter Christmas yore, ours simply took off along the country’s empty roads.

Our most memorable Christmas lunch: eating canned meat with a blanket spread out in a nondescript park in South Australia. Inside the car–a Holden Commodore, the country’s all-purpose family sedan–we would switch between a tape of Christmas carols and the traditional Boxing Day (December 26th) cricket test match commentary. This didn’t stop upon moving to the United States, where Christmas was often spent in a hotel room warmer than that found in Winter Maryland. As Chinese secularists, we didn’t lose any of the broader meaning of Christmas–that of family and thankfulness–we simply paired the tradition with the similarly universal ones of vacation and exploration.

This Christmas, my 23rd, will be spent away from family, in the damp, polluted climes of Chengdu. Here, where Christmas carols are heard about town with surprising frequency, and where global commerce has brought the affliction of inflatable Santa Claus dolls and silly stocking hats to businesses throughout the city, Christmas seems to have been adopted with equal parts pro-Western consumption gusto, bemused curiosity, and occasionally: inspiringly genuine interest.

When I asked some of my sixth graders what they would ask for from “Old Man Christmas”–a direct translation from the Chinese translation of “Father Christmas”–their answers were typical, but occasionally touching.

“A mother’s kiss,” wrote one girl, earnestly, (they attend as boarding students) as did those students asking for Christmas stockings, candy canes, and the regular sixth grade assortment of desires, including pets, computer games and money.

“A banana,” wrote another, less earnestly.

Despite the irony-inducing mass commercialism involved in modern-day Christmases, felt particularly astutely in the States, and thankfully thus far a little less prominently here, I couldn’t help but notice the twinge of nostalgia apparent in my colleague’s musings over the smell of Christmas trees and favored feast dishes. For even the most cynical, this most unpleasant time of year leads expatriate minds to wander more quickly than usual, back to the homes of North America, Europe and other Christmas-celebrating lands.

In their place, then, we substitute friends’ Christmas parties, particularly crucial now in their enlarged role as sole-bearer of home traditions. I have a slew of them lined up before me, a sort of gauntlet for the many foreigners in Chengdu currently suffering from respiratory ills. Our lungs, I have been told, have simply not adjusted to the amount of dirt in the air, and that once they’re sufficiently “dirty,” I’ll be ready to tackle future Chinese winters without hitch.

At the end of the day, then, Christmas in Chengdu, as with Christmas anywhere in the world, is about human love and kinship. As mobile as the human body and the heart it carries inside, as long as you’re with those you care about and appreciate, you’re as “home for Christmas” as you might be anywhere else. At times, even more so. At least that’s what I think. And it’s for such reasons that I am particularly thankful for that which I’ve been graced with this holiday season.

Addendum: Alas, I’ll still be working Christmas day, along with the rest of the country!

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