How to spend Christmas in China with your Chinese family

A Very Chinese Christmas Stocking

What do you do when no one else notices Christmas is coming? That’s what it’s like here in China’s countryside as I spend December with my husband’s family — a family that never had the tradition to celebrate this holiday.

Well, I say — if they can’t bring the holiday to you, you bring the holiday to them. So this year, I’m giving my Chinese family a taste of Christmas…with some inevitable Chinese characteristics.

1. Pull out the old Christmas tree. There’s nothing that says Christmas quite like a tree — and fortunately, they’re easy enough to find in larger cities in China. Back when I first lived in China, I bought a fake Christmas tree from a local supermarket and it followed me through the years…until I left, and it was left at my inlaws’ home. Well, turns out they stored it all these years and it’s still lovely enough to bring me some holiday cheer. I plan to decorate it with the supply of Chinese-style ornaments I’ve acquired over the years, and can’t wait to see it shining brightly on Christmas Eve.

2. Stream holiday music online. One of the best gifts anyone living in China can have is a fully functional Internet connection. Find your favorite online station and stream holiday music, if available (I’m impartial to Folk Alley’s holiday stream myself). And if you’re really ambitious, use it to teach your family a few favorite Christmas carols.

3. Serve your family a Christmas dinner. Isn’t eating half the pleasure of the holidays? And everyone has to eat — so your family in China surely won’t protest if you suggest doing dinner for Christmas or Christmas Eve.

Of course, I can’t make exactly the same dinner my mom or grandma used to make. Here in China, I have a toaster oven and a cupboard full of ingredients completely different from those I used in the US. But I can always improvise. For example, Chinese haw fruit makes a wonderful substitute for cranberries and they’re widely available in China during the winter. Instead of the chocolate cake I hoped to make (sorry, no cocoa powder in the supermarket), I’ll flavor it with the mandarin oranges that are so plentiful nearly everyone in the village gives me a few when I visit. Ham is a traditional Christmas roast not commonly found in China, but I can make something else from pork (my husband insists on ribs, who can blame him?).

But if, say, you can’t live without cranberries at the table, then head to one of China’s online stores. Yes, Virginia, you can buy dried cranberries in China…though it will cost much, much more.

4. Spread some generosity. The Christmas season is all about giving…so why not give a little something back to your family in the form of some gift? It doesn’t have to be expensive either, just something to show your generosity and love. I’m planning on setting up some “Christmas hats” (using the plethora of knitted hats around the house in place of Christmas stockings) and stuffing them with some candies from the local supermarket.

If you’re in China, how are you planning to celebrate Christmas? Or if you’ve spent Christmas in China, what did you do? Share your experiences or ideas in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “How to spend Christmas in China with your Chinese family

  • December 16, 2013 at 2:28 pm
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    I just bought a tiny Christmas tree and am planning to make Christmas dinner – fortunately, it’s not all too hard to get the things I need for a simple Christmas dinner here in SZ (and I won’t need much, we usually have sausages, potatoes and sauerkraut for the 24th). Not sure what my in-laws will think of it though, since it’s so simple (they usually prepare at least 5 or 6 dishes for 4 people).

    Reply
  • December 17, 2013 at 5:04 am
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    Brava! My mom did the same thing, bringing her Chinese holidays with her to the U.S. Without her persistence and creativity, my brothers and I would have missed out on Chinese New Year, Ching Ming, Tuen Ng and Mid-autumn Festival. It’s important to keep and adapt your traditions wherever you are, it adds to the richness of life. Wishing you all the best during this holiday season!

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  • December 17, 2013 at 5:46 am
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    My family has spent many a Christmas in SE Asia, where my parents still live–it’s definitely different than spending Christmas in a country where it’s a popular holiday, but it’s very nice in its own way!

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  • December 17, 2013 at 6:57 am
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    Interesting to see how they will respond to the Christmas celebration you intend bring to and share with them.

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  • December 17, 2013 at 1:50 pm
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    Dear all, thanks for the comments! @R, you’re fortunate you can get everything you need in SZ…though recently I’ve discovered I can also acquire a lot of things through online shopping, which is what I’m planning to do this afternoon (must have cocoa powder!). You’ll have to post photos of your Xmas celebration, I’d love to see it!

    @Lenore, how wonderful that your mother continued the Chinese New Year tradition in your family!

    @Rachel, that’s interesting that you and your family spent Christmases together in Malaysia. Have you written about that? I’d be interested in reading those stories!

    @ordinary malaysian, thanks for the comment! I’ll try to post an update on how things went.

    Reply
  • December 17, 2013 at 2:31 pm
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    For last year’s Christmas my MIL came to Poland to see my family so five of us – 3 Poles and 2 Chinese were sitting, eating, sharing gifts, decorating a christmas tree and went to midnight mass. it was something amazing for her, my husband is used to white traditions but for her it was the first time. even more – doing something like a ‘real family’ – my husband’s family is everyone somewhere else cannot make it on one date together so she forgot the feeling 🙂 I think that was most amazing from everything that happened that year 🙂
    cannot wait for a post how your Christmas in China ended up! 🙂 Merry Christmas 🙂

    Reply
  • December 17, 2013 at 2:42 pm
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    Sounds good. I’m planning to keep things small with a Christmas tree and a few gifts. I got my other half an amazing gift and I’m quite sure his eyes will pop when he opens the box on Christmas Eve, as it’s tradition in Germany. Other than that maybe some shopping and just generally being a bit lazy sounds nice. I can use the time to tell my other half some stories about Christmas in Germany and as for a Christmas meal, I might attempt to cook something but it will be all Chinese as I don’t have a toaster oven or anything like that… Maybe next year.

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  • December 19, 2013 at 10:46 am
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    I don’t spend christmas in any shape or form. For me its just like any other day.

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  • December 19, 2013 at 1:15 pm
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    In America, I gave my husband his first Christmas tree, which is interesting considering he is the one who is Christian. We are not doing anything special for Christmas this year. No tree. Nothing. Zip. We will just do our normal eating out in Shanghai. Although, I feel our days in Shanghai are numbered.

    I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a happy new year. 🙂

    Reply
  • December 22, 2013 at 9:59 pm
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    Sounds like you will have a nice Christmas with your Chinese family. For me it’s going to be different, as my boyfriend will be away for work the whole week. We did exchange gifts, have the Christmas tree and some other decorations. I also listen to Christmas songs online, they always change the mood for better.

    One things I’m looking forward to do with my friend next week is to cook the traditional rice porridge that we eat on Christmas in Finland. It’s a must and easy to do even in China. Luckily I even have a small bag of cinnamon left that is needed.

    Reply

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