On Spending Christmas in China, and Missing the Holidays Back Home

Just the other day, I met another foreign colleague of mine proudly announcing a trip back to his Western country to finally spend a proper Christmas with the family. He said he hadn’t gone back in five years, which easily won my sympathy as well as congratulations on finally having the opportunity to go. I was happy for him. And seeing him smile, a grin that could have flicked on all the Christmas lights in town, was refreshing.

But yet, after I retreated to my apartment, I couldn’t help but feel a certain uneasiness stirring within me. And it soon morphed into that ugly emotion of envy.

Yes, I admit it — I envied him a bit for finally getting home to enjoy a proper Christmas. Maybe I envied him even more because I too hadn’t spent Christmas with family and friends for five years. Five long years of spending Christmas in China.

And when I pondered this later on, I also recognized something else — that unlike my colleague, I’m “married to China.” Eventually he’ll return to his home country, either for a new job or to retire. Not me. When I moved back to China in 2013, I did it with the understanding that this would be my home for the rest of my life. That means a long future of years living in a country where December 25 is just another day — and not the biggest holiday of the year.

Every year I remind myself that Christmas in China is getting better, easier. And it’s true, I am becoming accustomed to spending December in China. There are things I’ve grown to love and appreciate over here — such as the joys of celebrating Christmas with someone who didn’t grow up with it, and the pleasure of introducing Christmas to friends and family. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to feeling a little down every now and then. And sometimes, instead of trying to be another Pollyanna and pretend everything is just perfect, it’s a relief to admit how you really feel.

Honestly, though, sometimes I think the longer I’m away from Christmas, the more nostalgic I’ve become for the holiday. When you’re living in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it’s so easy to forget the worst of the holidays — such as the pressure to buy, buy, buy, or the endless parties you’d rather not attend. In my mind, Christmas has retreated into its own perfect snow globe and taken on a strangely romantic glow…in some ways, not unlike what many Chinese think of the holiday. But that could happen to anyone who longs for something they’ve missed over many years.

What I do know, though, is that the holidays will turn out just fine. Jun and I will come up with our own personal “Christmas program,” just as we do every year, including a Christmas dinner for two. We’ll also decorate the tree, put on our favorite Christmas music, and enjoy a few classic holiday movies. It won’t be the Christmas I once knew in Ohio, but I’m certain we’ll create plenty of Christmas cheer in the process.

Besides, as it turns out, my colleague is a little jealous I’m spending the holidays here. He heard there’s finally going to be a Christmas party for the foreign staff, something that hasn’t happened since 2010. And he’s not here to experience it.

Never thought the day would come that someone actually envied me for spending Christmas in China.

Have you ever spent Christmas in a country that doesn’t celebrate the holiday? 

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7 Replies to “On Spending Christmas in China, and Missing the Holidays Back Home”

  1. I spent one Christmas in Japan, one in Singapore, and three in Hong Kong. Since I’m not Christian, I didn’t really celebrate it in the US like most Americans, but I have fond memories of celebrating in Asia where it was a public holiday in all three of these places. In Japan I went to Yokohama’s Chinatown on Christmas Day and listened to Christmas carols in the car with my friends. In Singapore, I don’t remember what I did, but was with my parents and remember all the lights and decorations around the city. In Hong Kong, I went to Tiger Balm Gardens one Christmas with my mom and to a British restaurant that served Yorkshire pudding with a British friend another Christmas. The third one I don’t really remember, but I think I went out again with this British friend. She was far from home, too, and really missed her family on Christmas, so I was happy to spend the evening with her. The good thing about being an expat in Beijing is that Christmas is becoming more and more popular in China and being in a place like Beijing will give you the most Christmas exposure apart from Shanghai. It’s far better than being somewhere like Gansu province. Merry Christmas to you and Jun!

    1. Hi Susan, thank you so much for the comment, and for sharing your experiences! I’m glad you had so many memorable times enjoying Christmas while you were abroad. It’s true that Christmas is totally more popular in China, and there are a lot of opportunities to appreciate the season. A very Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah to you!

  2. This year we’re spending Christmas in Los Angeles. There’s no snow, and it’s not even cold. And the white stuff falling down from the sky?

    That’s ash from all the California fires.

    So even though I’m in the U.S., I also feel envious of everyone back East.

    Like you and Jun, we’ll just have to create some different traditions.

    Because I don’t think you can sled on ash.

  3. It’s been 5 years since I was home for Christmas too. I miss my family a lot at this time, especially since my Mum said it would be a really quiet one this year. She isn’t even bothering with the tree. I have some very fond memories of our mixed up Aussie xmases and my grandmother still cooking the traditional roast turkey dinner she knew from her life in younger years in the UK. Great memories and traditions I try to recreate where I can with my husband and his parents. My parents in law come every year to Beijing to celebrate with us even though they aren’t Christian and don’t really know too much about Christmas, I think it’s because they know how important it is for me to have family around.

    1. Thanks for the comment Sarah — glad to know I’m not the only one who has spent 5 years missing Christmas. That is really sweet your husband’s parents come to Beijing each year so you can celebrate together.

    2. Hi Sarah.
      I don’t know you, but what you shared about your parents-in-law touched me to tears. They must really care for you if they do it for you. At least this is my understanding of their actions based on what I’ve read and seen regarding “showing affection in East Asia.”

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