How spending the holidays in China taught me the meaning of the song “White Christmas”

Christmas in ChinaA couple of weeks ago, John and I made a quick day trip to Shanghai to run an important errand. Our journey also brought us to Nanjing Road – the ultimate shop-till-you-drop heart of Shanghai’s retail world – and the many malls towering over the street. We happened to pass through some of them during the day where I spied glittering silver tinsel, wreaths, painted wooden nutcrackers and even a montage of snowflakes twinkling under the soft white lighting in a department store.

There they were, all the signs that Christmas is coming. And yet, with every sight of a Christmas decoration, I felt all melancholy inside, as though I were housebound in the midst of a huge winter blizzard.

After all, they’re a reminder that another Christmas in America will pass among my family members – and I won’t be there to share it with them. I’ll be spending it here in Hangzhou, China with my husband.

“Home for the holidays” sounds like the title of yet another saccharine made-for-TV Christmas movie. In the holiday movie world, the script of my life would work like this. A young American woman who returns to China with her husband says “good riddance” to her seemingly dysfunctional family in the US. But she suddenly has a change of heart on Christmas Eve, rushing to Shanghai’s Pudong Airport with her Chinese husband, where they buy tickets for two to Cleveland, Ohio and make it just in time for Christmas Eve mass at Grandma’s Catholic church with the whole family, singing “Silent Night” together as the credits roll.

IMG_7637In reality, none of that’s true. I didn’t return to China with my husband John to escape my family in the US. I still love them all very, very much. In fact, I would love more than anything to once again be reunited with everyone around Grandma’s cozy little table in Cleveland for Christmas Eve, and then wake up the following morning at my father’s home to a delicious spread of bagels, sweet figs and truffle chocolates.

Unfortunately, I’m just not able to make it home this time around.

For months leading up to this holiday season, I expected this. I told myself, It’s just another holiday season. You did it last year, after all. And you even spent a number of Christmases away from family in the US. Why the big deal now?

Yes, why should I feel so blue about the holidays? I’d love to offer a rational explanation for that and yet, I come up empty every time. How can you have a rational explanation for something that comes from the heart?

My Chinese husband John has long become a home to me – an adult home, in a sense, a home that I’ve created on my own. He is the one person in the world who has seen all of me – the Midwestern American, the woman who came of age in China, even the me that speaks half a sentence in English and the other half in local dialect (making him erupt in a fit of giggles). It is the greatest gift that I have someone who knows who I really am and loves all of the messy and imperfect things about me.

But when the holidays arrive, I still long for the home I knew as a child and the Christmases that once captivated me year after year. It was a place where the snow covered the ground like thick layers of sweet white frosting, where the aroma of cinnamon-spice pinecones greeted you at the local supermarket, and the local electric company put on a dazzling show of Christmas lights strung together to make Santa’s sleigh and reindeer and Christmas stockings and stars.

As much as I have come to love Hangzhou, my husband’s hometown and my new home, and as much as I appreciate the many signs of Christmas that you can find in China, there are some things that I’ll never quite replicate in this place. That’s part of life when you choose to make a life for yourself in a foreign country like China – especially one that doesn’t officially celebrate the holidays you do.

Christmas tree in Shanghai

Of course, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll make the best of the season by decorating our apartment in Christmas stockings and lights, and I’ll buy a small tree to place in the corner. We’ll make a plan for Christmas Day to stroll around the West Lake and then indulge in a little coffee and Christmas cookies for two at a local Starbucks. I’ll call family that day and wish everyone the happiest of holidays.

But now I truly understand the meaning of that nostalgic tune, “White Christmas,” because I’m dreaming of my own white Christmas back in the US – and wishing that sometime, maybe next year, I’ll finally make it home.

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27 Replies to “How spending the holidays in China taught me the meaning of the song “White Christmas””

  1. I love how you have written the Chinese characters on the stockings – so cute!

    I won’t be making the journey to Canada either for the holidays. However, I will be making the most out of Christmas in Taiwan. For example, I host a huge turkey feast at my house with my husband’s family and friends which turns into a big festive celebration. I also enjoy the Christmas displays around the city. But the one thing I don’t miss about Christmas in Canada is the crowded malls and the overspending. In Taiwan, it is not about the presents but about the atmosphere of joy and happiness (if that makes sense)!!

    1. Thanks Constance.

      I think that’s terrific you’re going to host a big celebration in Taiwan. And it’s true, the crowded malls and overspending can feel like too much — that joy and happiness is what matters.

  2. Sorry for not responding to posts as I usually do: got a job and had to work as well as trying to keep up with book tours (really hard…)

    Since we came to America, my family anyways, its pretty difficult for me to picture myself celebrating holidays like others do. Yeah, never did celebrate christmas, and I doubt I will. Most likely I will miss celebrating New Years celebration as well as Jewish holidays and birthdays.

    For some odd reason, its a bit difficult for me to relate to missing holidays, or to imagine what it might feel like…:(

  3. Hi Jocelyn,

    I wish I would have known you were in Shanghai. I work on Nanjing Road and would have caught up with you and shown you around.

    Let me know when you’re in town next and we can catch up if you have the time. In the meantime, happy holidays!

    Blessings to you and your family,


  4. I can understand how you feel. I haven’t spent the holidays with my family since 2005. I did have Thanksgiving once with my family in 2009. I’m not a Christian but I do like to hear some of the Chirstmas songs. I guess I just like the nostalgia. 🙂

  5. I haven’t been home for Christmas the last two years and won’t be able to go back this year. I sometimes miss the atmosphere (we have snow here, but I have yet to see a Christmas tree in Siping), but other times I also feel like some part is only nostalgia. I certainly do not miss all the Christmas songs being played over and over again and the shopping craze. I’d like to take my husband back for Christmas one day though to experience a real Austrian Christmas.

    Starbucks is one place with a great Christmas atmosphere in China.

    1. Thanks Ruth! Oh, I’m sure like yourself, part of this is also nostalgia! Christmas isn’t totally perfect — but yes, there is that part of me that still longs for an American Christmas again.

      You’re right at Starbucks. I’m planning to visit on Christmas myself!

  6. Holidays are fun sometimes, but at least your name isn’t Christmas themed all year long! 😛 haha!

    I hope any of you can come back home for the holidays in the mere future. I, myself, sometimes don’t particularly like celebrating these days…filled with so much family drama! But if I’m abroad in the future, hopefully I’ll miss it. ^^;

    P.S. Jocelyn, I don’t know if you know but the midwest has no snow! Currently no snow here on the west side of Michigan. 🙂 (But I don’t know about Ohio.)

      1. Oh what can you say? My mom “loves” Christmas.

        Yup! No snow in the Midwest. There only was snow in November, it was so different. It did snow yesterday, but it didn’t stick.

  7. Jocelyn,

    I’d like to add more scenes to your movies.

    A scene where a young American woman with an adventurous mind embarked upon a journey to the East, spouting “Good Riddance America”

    A scene where she was enjoying with all new experiences in East Asia, her eyes sparkled with stars, exuding brilliance.

    A scene where she started to feel home-sick, lonely, surrounded with all those strangers, stalkers, weirdoes, dbags, etc etc etc.

    A scene where she won a lottery to buy an air ticket, fly back to America, she’s standing tall right on top of the Jet Blue flight, breathing an air, that she’s long remembered, with an influx of old energy, yet somewhat new, her smile hooked up to both ears, with all those familiar faces waiting at the passenger lounge, she finally said “Home Sweet Home”.

  8. This Christmas we had the change to fly to China to visit the family but we declined. These days also my wife prefer having Christmas here, with all the Christmassy atmosphere compared to nearly nothing in Xi’an.

    Until few years ago my wife would have prefered to fly to China but it changed after celebrating few times with my family a nice Christmas 🙂

  9. I went home only once during the sixteen years we lived in the Philippines and Vanuatu. I don’t really remember missing it that much, though. For one thing, both places celebrate Christmas. No turkeys or fir trees or snow. But then, we don’t usually have snow in Seattle either. I think my parents and sister felt our absence more than I did, especially the absence of our children.

    I wonder if I’m not very sentimental or if I’ve just forgotten.

  10. Celebrating Christmas in Australia is quite different ….summer, sun, beach and BBQ . When we were young mum and Dad would pack up the car with our presents and Christmas lunch and we’d head off to the beach and spend the whole day frolicking in the water.

  11. I have spent many Christmas holidays in China. However, most of them I was either in Shanghai, or in a Kungfu school surrounded by other foreigners. Both places had lots of ways to create a little Christmas feeling.

    This year I am in Bozhou. A small city somewhere in the outskirts of Anhui province, central China. With just three foreigners in the whole city, obviously no supermarket or shopping mall can be bothered to put out the Christmas decoration 🙁 I am trying very hard to bring the holiday spirit into our home. Even got a little Christmas tree. But no matter how hard I try, it is not working. No one cares about Christmas! We don’t even get one hour off from work during those days.

    Does John appreciate Christmas? My husband couldn’t care less. He cannot understand the importance no matter how desperate I am to make him understand that his holidays are a big deal to me. For me Christmas symbolises so much more. It’s not just a holiday for gift giving, but also to come together with family, maybe loved ones you haven’t seen the whole year, appreciating the delights of great food you would not have the time to make on other days. For me Christmas is always the perfect way to end the year, maybe sometimes a very exhausting year, but Christmas just makes everything worth it. Usually my husband and me don’t have many problems with cultural differences, except if it comes to Christmas and the end of the year. In his mind, Christmas does not exist, and his year ends two months later…

    How do you deal with those differences?

  12. For me, I can’g get the xmas feeling until my family comes back to Norway, my mum, dad, brother and sister all live in Dubai, and as much as i try to decorate at our home in Norway, it is just not working. I need my family here in order to get into the xmas mood! This will be the last xmas I celebrate in Norway for a while I think, because CC and I are moving back to China, my sister will also move to China, so we are hoping the rest of my family will come to celebrate with us.. I remember celebrating xmas in China, I did it a few times in fact, together with my family, but it still didn’t feel right, I was missing the snow, missing the dinner parties with the rest of my family.. This year I just have to make the most out of it, as everything will be different from January.. 🙂

  13. @Anna….does you husband understand the importance of Christmas to you e.g. it’s as important and as what Chinese New Year/Spring festival is to him?

    Could he imagine himself in a foreign country where Spring festival is not celebrated, how would he feel? Wouldn’t he try to “create” that festival/feeling for himself his friends or wife.

  14. Anna: I’m a big believer in the idea that the holidays are about the experiences you create with your loved ones. Christmas is rooted in the Christian religion, which for many here in China, doesn’t really have strong meaning. I think that if you can manage to bring the spirit of the holiday into your home and share amongst friends, you will find that your husband starts to turn his feelings around about the holiday.

    I had a similar experience in my workplace because no one there appreciated Christmas until we started planning Christmas events for the expat staff. The thing was, we included the Chinese staff and it was a new thing that we all started to enjoy. Now the celebrations are much more welcomed and the local staff are starting to do things on their own (singing Christmas carols all day, filling stockings for their friends, etc.), which is a miracle in itself. As a team, make some of our own decorations, we incorporate as many group ideas and activities as we can and make it fun for everyone to participate. Maybe you can start working in some new family traditions for you and your husband to participate in and keep them going.

    When it comes time for CNY, then you can do it all over again and have him take the lead on the traditions or experiment with new traditions you can share together.

    Good luck.

  15. I really enjoyed your post. What I found interesting was that I still wish for those Christmases past, even now and being in my Canadian home. I suppose my memories combined with marketing and created nostalgia do that. I guess I wish for rosy consistency when change is more the norm. Happy Christmas!

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