The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It)


My husband and I spent Christmas Eve in Shanghai's Xintiandi many years ago.
My husband and I spent Christmas Eve in Shanghai’s Xintiandi many years ago.

Initially, I had this perfect little holiday-themed post all sketched out to run today. It would snappy, upbeat and fun. Everything Christmas should be, right?

But after I let it sit for a day and revisited it, I realized it didn’t hit the right note with me. The thing is, I wasn’t feeling snappy, upbeat or fun.

I didn’t like the idea of having to force a happy face out there when it wasn’t the truth. The heaviness in my heart that weighed upon me as I stared at the computer screen told me I just couldn’t run that post in good conscience – not when I’m still facing my own share of ups and downs over spending Christmas in China, a country that doesn’t officially celebrate it.

I live here in China because it’s my husband’s home country. We moved back here from America in November 2013 and plan to reside here permanently for the rest of our lives. Part of that means that, sometimes, I’ll spend Christmas in China too.

In theory, the holidays can be a lot of fun here in China. We’ve got our own Christmas tree decked out in shiny ornaments, sparkling colored lights, and golden ribbon. “Santa Claus” already has gifts ready to go for us. We’re planning a romantic Christmas Eve dinner at our favorite restaurant, followed by a nighttime stroll beside the West Lake to take in the stunning views of the gardens lit up in pink, blue and green lights. On Christmas Day, we’ll climb up to the top of a beautiful pagoda and enjoy some breathtaking views of the city. It’ll be a Christmas like no other – in theory.

But in practice, in anticipation, it doesn’t always feel as fun as you might expect. I can hardly find a hint of the Christmas season on the Chinese TV stations I have available and it’s tough to find more than a handful of Christmas movies. In my community, I don’t see folks making the same Christmas preparations I remember from back home – and I have a feeling that my Christmas tree is quite possibly the only one in the entire block. I can’t make Christmas cookies at home and the ones I tried finding online looked nothing like the batches of warm, cinnamon-scented joy that used to come out of your mother’s oven. I told my family not to send Christmas cards because it can take up to a month to receive the mail here and, anyhow, I’d get it late because an out-of-town relative receives our mail; but a part of me secretly mourns the fact that this might just be the first Christmas I won’t receive a single physical Christmas card from anyone.

That’s what it feels like for me on some days – the days when nostalgia for Christmases past gets the best of me.


Now, this isn’t the end of the world. I know that things could be far worse. I know this Christmas will come and I’ll be okay. In fact, in all likelihood it’ll turn out to be a nice Christmas. But that doesn’t mean that some days I won’t be a little down – like I have been recently.

It’s a relief to finally be honest about how I’m feeling – especially when it seems the online world would rather us all put on our best “holiday cheer” face. I was on Facebook the other day and confronted by a neverending stream of happy, confident, “we have perfect lives and never get depressed” kind of posts. It was really hard for me to read it at times. It was as if every ultra-positive post was saying to me, “This is the holiday season and if you’re not happy, there must be something wrong with you.”

But when I got off social media, meditated along with my favorite meditation song, and chatted with my husband about how I was feeling, I remembered that, in fact, there’s nothing wrong with me. That’s it’s all right to have those down days during the holidays – especially when you’re far from your family and friends in your home country. And that social media is often like smoke and mirrors, hiding away the darkest parts of our own lives.

My holiday wish to you is honesty – as in, being honest with yourself during this holiday season. No matter where you are in the world, perhaps you might find yourself facing another round of the holiday blues. Maybe you don’t even have the “I’m living abroad and missing family” excuse. Whatever the reason, know that it’s okay. Know that you’re not alone. A lot of us don’t speak up because it’s not cool or not the kind of thing everyone wants to hear. But we should.

I can’t predict exactly how I’ll feel on Christmas. I’d like to hope it will be a very merry Christmas. But I know that if it isn’t, I’ll give myself the permission to acknowledge that, to feel my feelings, and to remind myself that it’s part of being human. That life – even a Christmas spent abroad with your husband in China – will have its share of ups and downs.

Has spending the holidays abroad — or even, in a country that doesn’t celebrate your holiday — left you with a touch of blues sometimes?

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31 Replies to “The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It)”

  1. Yes is the very simple answer! Here in Turkey all the trappings of Christmas have been transferred to New Year so the decorations are up, the turkeys will be a week late and Santa may even arrive to some. But that’s not quite the same thing as an Irish Christmas. Now even though we’ve made our own traditions I find I don’t have the same enthusiasm for it. Maybe it’s because all of our celebrations come down to me, maybe it’s because I’m moving further from the excitement of childhood, maybe it comes down to belief. Who knows. But it’s perfectly fine to feel a bit down at times, especially when you miss family and home. Sometimes we try too hard to make out that everything is perfect instead of admitting that while we’re happy in a long term sense to be where we are, at this moment in time we are sad and miss home. As you say being honest about why you’re down, and making an effort to appreciate the good new traditions you create really does help. Wishing you and John a wonderful Christmas!

  2. I guess I am one of those super-positive people on the web these days talking about Christmas. However, I have spent the last 15 years in Taiwan during Christmas and now have my own traditions for the holidays!

    And I know exactly how you feel. When I first arrived in Taiwan, signs of Christmas were few and far between and I yearned for the magic of the holiday season. However, a good friend invited me to a huge get together with other expats and it made my Christmas.

    1. Thanks Constance! I think it’s great that you’re super-positive and have your own traditions. We’re still kind of figuring things out over here and it’s hard sometimes. I’ll bet we’ll get to a point where, just like you guys, we’ll have Christmas in China figured out.

  3. Thanks to a Franco-Chinese family, I spent almost half of my life in China, and I am currently living here. Which also means that I have spent almost half of my Christmases in China (and half of my Chinese New Years in France).

    It never disturbed me. But I have to admit that I was lucky to (almost) always have my family with me each time.

    Be it Christmas in China or Chinese New Year in France, we would decorate our home and prepare everything as if we were in the “right” country. And we would always have friends who would be as expectant of the festivities as we were. So we could have all this “holiday cheer” between us. I guess it never really mattered to me that the whole world was not enjoying the same celebration as I, as long as those I cared were.

    And nowadays, with globalisation, there is a lot of Christmas decorations in China (or Shanghai at least), or Chinese decorations in France when times come. I always found it fun to explain one event to the “other” part of the world, see what they make of it, and spread the holiday cheer around me, even to those who usually wouldn’t know a single thing of what’s going around.

  4. Thanks for posting how you’re really feeling. As it is now, I am home for Christmas when I didn’t plan to be, and it is the first time in four years that I will be celebrating with my family. The last four years I’ve been in Xining, and my good Canadian friend and I have been having massive Christmas celebrations for the last two years.

    I tend to get cranky around the holidays no matter where I am, including this year. Things might have been better under different circumstances (like if my husband was here with us or if I’d planned to be here in the first place) but things are as they are and there isn’t much to be done about it.
    I also find that as I get older there is less and less magic when it comes to the holidays (and more and more work). I think it will start to change as our girl gets older, but for now, I think feeling a little down is normal during the holidays, especially if you have really warm memories of them from your childhood. It sounds like you have a really nice family. Feel blessed that you do and that you have them to miss. It will also make those Christmases that you do have together that much more special.

    1. Thanks Kim. I feel your crankiness! I know what you mean about feeling that there’s less and less magic with the holidays as you get older. It’s great you have a daughter to share the season with and I’ll bet it will be fun for you down the road.

  5. I just finished writing a bit about this topic and plan to post later today or tomorrow. I have been incredibly homesick this year and it’s not a feeling I’m accustomed to. I think it’s okay to feel that way, but you have to try to find a way to pull yourself out of it. For me, I’ve been keeping busy and endulging myself in some things I might not otherwise (namely high quality chocolates and beer, haha). I’ve also worked hard to create my own Christmas traditions in China and it helps me enjoy the holiday here.

    I think it may get easier with time. Maybe there is some solace in that?

  6. Jocelyn…you cam back to China last year in November, so you spent 2013 Christmas in China. Were you feeling this way last year? If not why do you think its so different this year?

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a time machine and pop back home for a day or so (especially during festive times such as Christmas, Birthdays etc).

    You and John will create your own Christmas’s, for now it may be just you and John but in coming years your family will grow and your Christmas’s will be shared others. (whether they be immediate family, distant family, close or adoptive friends)… they’ll come to celebrate the Christmas you and John created together, and I’m sure it will be a wonderful gathering.

    Yes accept and acknowledge how you feel , and Jocelyn maybe those people on face book the ones that give the impression of “we have perfect lives and never get depressed”, maybe some of them are acting and actually feel sad, lonely and depressed.

    Jocelyn I wish you, your husband John and all your readers a very Merry Christmas and a happy 2015. Look forward to “Speaking of China” 2015.

    1. Thanks MM! We did spend Christmas here last year, but we were living with John’s family and it still felt like a family thing. Being on our own here in Hangzhou feels totally different for some reason.

      Anyhow, thanks for your wishes and for reading!

  7. I haven’t been feeling very Christmas-y at all this year and sometimes I even forget Christmas is this week. I suggested to my husband to go to Harbin for Christmas, and I’ll see what it will be like. My husband has been very pro-active in arranging things, but I guess Christmas just isn’t the same here – especially this year, because we don’t have a permanent place to stay at yet.

    Don’t beat yourself up about not being overly happy. Just like you said, that’s life. We can’t force ourselves to be happy 24/7 and no-one has a perfect life (even though it sometimes seems like it when you spend too much time with social media).

  8. Jocelyn, we miss you too. You are with the man of your dreams and in a country you love. It is ok to be a bit sad but you will find after the day has come and gone that being loved, safe, and in good health is what mattered. So, dress up that little tree, sing your carols and know we love you and Jun! Aunt Sue

  9. It is totally understandable if you are feeling down! There is nothing wrong with not being upbeat and fun the whole time, and I agree with what you said about social media… all smoke and mirrors! So don’t feel bad about feeling blue in Christmas… after all spending the holiday here is nothing like you are used to!

    I am not a very Christmasy person so I’m fine these days, but sometimes I feel sad when for example one of my friends gets married and I miss their wedding because I am not in Spain. But this is life! Choosing China made us leave some things behind but we encountered others, new and exciting 🙂

    1. In this one I’m quite similar to Marta. 5.5 years in China and I don’t really feel sad that Christmas here is so different. Christmas back home was full of sadness for me for the past 17 years since I felt divided between two sides of the family. For me this is refreshing.
      However, I feel bad when I can’t attend a wedding or be there for an important birth.

  10. Jocelyn, this is the first time I’ve commented, but your blog has helped keep me sane for over a year now through my own ups and downs in a confusing relationship with a Chinese man. As I write, nothing seems any clearer and I have my own dose of holiday blues. Chin up! Let’s all of us grasp life’s challenges and look forward to whatever surprises 2015 brings. Thanks, Jocelyn, for the wonderful blog. If I lurked in silence this long, there must be many more. You never know how many lives you touch. Happy Christmas!

  11. Congratulations, Jocelyn, on being honest and telling it like it is. Expecting a super perfect old-time Christmas is setting you or anyone up for a fall.

    Yesterday we went to Mass in Indianapolis, and the priest was complaining that the airways are full of Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells and other songs that have nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas: the birth of Christ. I guess he was expecting an old-time Christmas that never was.

    I’m at my daughter’s house with my other daughters and their families. My daughter is a big planner, so we have the Christmas cookies, the crafts, the tree, the performance of A Christmas Carol, etc.

    When we lived abroad, it was in the Philippines, a country that celebrated Christmas, though in a different way. The first year we tried to dress up, but it was too hot to enjoy our fancy clothes.

  12. I can relate to you on a certain level. I admire that you’re honest about it. Despite I sound very cheery (I think?) in my posts – it’s not the whole picture. I feel pretty lost, alone and unsettled.

  13. I feel with you Jocelyn. I it is very brave and honest of you to put your feelings out there. I admire you for that.
    For my part, I might be still in the denial phase. Thinking if I don’t openly acknowledge that I am feeling down, and hate being in China during Christmas, maybe I can convince myself that it isn’t that bad after all. I get the feeling I am up for a deep fall.

    I had to work on Sunday, had to work very late hours yesterday, and will have to again today… And I do this in order to get off on Christmas eve. Unfortunately, due to all the work (and a nasty cold I caught due to no electricity and hot water AGAIN), I just cannot find the time to get into the holiday spirit or do some planning for Christmas eve. I hope to get some cooking done, and have a relaxing evening at home with my husband though. He will be working the rest of the holidays. I cannot find anything nice about celebrating a holiday in a country which doesn’t recognize that holiday at all. You don’t even get off from work for those days, how are you supposed to celebrate? -.-

  14. I agree with Grace, it is really refreshing to read this – particularly at this time of year with social media full of rose-tinted festive cheer!

    My Chinese fiancé and I are spending our Christmas in a very practical and non-festive way – moving house while the streets are conveniently deserted of traffic!

    I really appreciate your blog – it has kept me company through a lot of new/good/bad/difficult/rewarding parts of being in a cross-cultural relationship.

  15. Yes! Absolutely. My first Christmas away was in Thailand in 2004. 2005 was also in Thailand. Us volunteers had our own Secret Santa and advent exchange but the stress of missing home still ran high. I distanced myself psychologically. 2006 was with friends in Japan. 2007 in Japan, I worked and had a good cry after. My hubby-to-be and I were living in different cities. 2008 was a disaster! We went to Canada but slept in the airport en route due to a storm, our bags were lost until after Xmas, and it was too cold to leave the house. The last five years have been in Canada but Christmas seems to be so full of drama and anxiety that I’ve run out of steam. Only today, finding a Christmas book for my child by chance, have I felt an inkling of sparkle for this time of year. I see I could keep going so I will instead thank you for sharing your feelings and for the blog post idea!

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