When you straddle two different cultures, sometimes, you wish your holidays did too. Holidays like Christmas.
I still love and embrace the traditions of my childhood, growing up in a Catholic home with a fresh-cut spruce trimmed with tinsel, and lights and an Angel. We hung our stockings, exchanged presents by the tree, hung wreaths, shared Christmas carols, baked Christmas cookies, and decorated our doors with pictures of Santa and the Reindeer and Elves.
But now, with my Chinese husband John, I’ve enjoyed creating a few new traditions and twists on the old, to make the holiday reflect the international, cross-cultural couple we are.
So how can you make this a very Chinese Christmas? Start with these five tips.
Decorate your tree with “Chinese Christmas ornaments”
What, might you ask, are Chinese Christmas ornaments? Really, it’s anything you can hang on your tree that captures the spirit of Chinese culture. So how can you get Chinese Christmas ornaments? Here are some quick ideas.
Buy them. If you’ve got the money, go online and let google help you find something with a little Chinese character for your tree. On my search, I found a Christmas bulb with different Chinese characters on the side (“good fortune,” “love,” “harmony,” and even “double happiness,”). About’s Chinese Culture site links to stores with tantalizing options, from glass lions to pagodas. And even Hallmark, if it’s in your region, has some from time to time — one year, my aunt gave John and I a Hallmark ornament that had a Chinese-style country home, and a little girl dressed in a pink silk outfit and pigtails.
In China, it’s even easier to score Chinese Christmas ornaments. I frequently pick up my “ornaments” at museums in China — they sell these darling cell phone/car decorations with Chinese cultural designs (such as Beijing Opera masks, or red Chinese knots, or fish, or even some of the art on display in their collection), which already come with loops perfect for hanging on any tree.
Make them. With a little time and imagination, you can make your own tree explode with the spirit of China by crafting your own Chinese Christmas ornaments.
For example, print out pictures of all the Chinese zodiac animals, laminate them, punch them with holes and hang them on your tree (or, likewise, find cutout silhouettes of the Chinese zodiac animals, trace them on colorful Christmas paper, laminate, punch a hole, and hang).
Or you could write out (or print out) different Chinese characters on nice red paper, laminate, punch a hole, and hang them too.
Speaking of paper, you could get really fancy and try your hand at the art of Chinese paper cutting, with these ornament ideas.
Make Chinese lanterns to hang on your tree (or, for that matter, even hang around your house).
You might even try converting other Chinese items into Christmas ornaments. For example, if you have leftover mah-jong tiles, you can use heavy-duty glue to attach hooks to them, and then hang them on your tree.
To find more inspiration, check out these pages filled with Chinese New Year craft ideas, many perfect for ornament making and more.
NOTE: While it’s tempting to decorate your tree in origami, if your family/loved ones are Chinese, resist the urge. Remember, origami is a Japanese thing — which will immediately inject a shot of “Japanese aggression in China” memories into your holiday celebration. Which is to say, don’t even go there.
Translate the Holidays into Chinese
If you write it in English, why not write it in Chinese too?
For example, instead of just hanging “Merry Christmas” on your door, add “圣诞快乐” by writing it on nice, red paper you can laminate (or searching for it and printing it out).
Make your stockings bilingual by putting your English name on one side, and your Chinese name on the other.
Find Chinese versions of familiar Christmas carols, such as Jingle Bells in Chinese.
Use Hongbao for the Holidays
Hongbao, for those who don’t know, are the little Chinese red envelopes used to hold money usually given to the children in the family for Chinese New Year. But if you’re giving someone cash or a check for Christmas, you can make it even more memorable by slipping it into a hongbao.
If you’re in China, just go to any supermarket to buy them.
Otherwise, you can purchase these online (I did a search on Chinese red envelopes).
NOTE: Be careful if your recipient can actually read Chinese. Some of the envelopes have the character for “double happiness,” which you only use for money given at a wedding.
Make a very Chinese Christmas dinner
Start with Chinese Winter Solstice. My husband calls this the “little Chinese New Year,” and in his region, people eat glutinous rice balls filled with sweet sesame paste, often called tangyuan (汤圆). So years ago, we made these tangyuan for Christmas Eve, and they were a huge hit (see tangyuan recipes here). If your Chinese family has a must-eat solstice food, add it to your Christmas table.
Modify your own traditions. For example, here in America, a lot of people love ham for Christmas. But my husband hates ham, and would rather be chowing down on Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork. So, what I’m doing is a baking a pork roast, but seasoning it with the same seasonings as the Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork.
For some inspiration to this end, see the recipes for this Asian-American Thanksgiving dinner.
Make room for your ancestors
At Chinese New Year, the dearly deceased always have a place at the table. In my husband’s family, they give the ancestors a sampling of the evening’s feast, served before their photos, and before their graves. They also bow before them, and even burn incense at the graves.
This year, I’ll be putting out a few photos of my own ancestors, and remembering them on our Christmas day.
What about you? How have you created your own very Chinese Christmas?