Video: Why I Still Love My Old $3 Christmas Tree

Dear friends,

It’s Christmas and I’m so behind on everything amid the sudden COVID-19 surge here in China, which has impacted our lives in many unexpected ways. Fortunately, Jun and I still have not caught COVID, and remain safe and healthy.

But I wanted to share with you this Christmas letter I started writing a few weeks ago. Even amid the surge, it still rings true.

There’s a video too, if you’d prefer to “watch” my letter instead.

Wishing you a safe, healthy and happy holiday, wherever you are.

A parade of Instagrammable Christmas decor lit up one of my online groups in the past week, with photos of artificial trees so perfect they could have starred in a Balsam Hill commercial.

One glance at the offerings from my virtual neighbors, who were even touting snaps of DIY Christmas ornaments straight out of Etsy, told me they probably wouldn’t deem our tree “camera ready”.

The tree in our living room, standing 5 feet (1.5 meters) high, was around half the size of those in the photos. Only the visually impaired would mistake it for a real one. The wires in the barebone branches were visible from across the room. This faux foliage couldn’t conceal the aggregate of wires forming its trunk, which looked more like a branch propped up by three plastic wedges. The decorations–from the golden star and words “Merry Christmas” to the assortment of Santa, bell, drum, gift and pinecone ornaments–looked like something on sale at the local dollar store. Indeed, years ago we bought the entire tree, including those ornaments, green and blue tinsel, and a janky string of colored lights, for the Chinese equivalent of $3.

It was nothing to envy. 

Would anyone want to see a photo of it? They might laugh, just as Charlie Brown’s friends did when he took home the most pitiful tree on the lot for Christmas.

You may wonder why we’ve clung to a tree like this, when we could easily afford something the online Joneses would approve of.

But we don’t want another one. This is the Christmas tree equivalent of a war veteran. It has accompanied us through some of the darkest years of our lives, and remains a living testament to how far we’ve come, despite the challenges. Its humble appearance eschews the usual showy perfectionism of the season, instead urging us to hold fast to the things in life that matter far more than money.

I’m reminded of the wisdom the late Viktor Frankl shared in his seminal work “Man’s Search for Meaning”:

“…today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.”

I see our tree as an embodiment of that dignity Frankl writes about. There is value in simply having survived the vicissitudes of life, and coming out on the other side. 

It took me a long, tearful time — involving a lot of processing — to realize the presence of this spiritual wealth in my own life. But now that I have, I want to embrace it in all its incarnations, including one unassuming $3 Christmas tree in my living room.

I want to dedicate this end-of-year message to anyone who has had a difficult year. I know what it’s like to be buffeted by the hardships of life, and so does that Christmas tree. We will continue to shine a light for all of you, hoping for brighter days in this holiday season and beyond.

Photo Essay: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in China

Twas the night before Christmas in China, which in China proved tough.

Because we’d work the following morning, without a day off.

But in a small corner of Beijing, there lived Jocelyn and Jun,

Determined to dance to a Christmas-y tune.

Dazzling lights and ornaments on the tiny tree

Made it, despite the size, a sight to see.

And while live carolers would have been fine,

WKSU streamed their favorite songs online.

But most of all was the holiday spirit within

Which burned brightly in both, and made them grin.

Holidays abroad don’t equal a lump of coal

As long as you keep the spirit in your heart and soul.

So wherever you are, hope your holidays delight.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Is It Truly the Holidays if Only You’re Celebrating?

Last month, on the evening of Nov 28, Thanksgiving Day in the US, I sat down with friends to a home-cooked feast with all the usual trimmings — baked poultry, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole and gravy. And in the corner of the room, several sumptuous desserts — including a two-layer chocolate cake — tempted us all to leave a little space to enjoy them as well.

And yet, as we all tucked into this American-style Thanksgiving dinner, I knew we remained largely alone in the community surrounding us. After all, Thanksgiving is not a holiday in China. That I could take the time off at all felt like a miracle itself.

Unlike the US, Thanksgiving only thrived on the menus of a handful of restaurants and hotels dishing up traditional fare in Beijing. In the local supermarkets here, Thanksgiving really didn’t exist. No towering displays of stuffing mix, pumpkin puree, fried onions and cream of mushroom soup, or ready-made gravy. No pre-baked pumpkin or pecan pies to cut and serve for guests. Not even a gigantic freezer section loaded with huge turkeys.

I had to work extra-hard to make it a memorable holiday, which meant preparing from scratch ingredients and dishes most Americans take for granted, with a vegan twist. Things like vegetable broth, gravy, cream of mushroom soup, bread crumbs for stuffing, and even those sinfully delicious fried onions you sprinkle all over your green bean casserole. That resulted in a marathon day of cooking prior to the big day — and one that left me with a newfound respect for what goes into this traditional holiday banquet.

But as I recognized that few in Beijing, or China for that matter, would be raising their glasses on the fourth Thursday of November for this feast, it got me thinking — is it really the holidays if you’re the only one celebrating in your community? What exactly is it that makes a holiday a true holiday when you don’t have the momentum of an entire nation behind you, along with all the holiday trappings in stores?

Here’s what I think, in the wake of my Thanksgiving experience.

What makes a holiday is ultimately the effort and care you put into it. And holidays can exist even just one small apartment in an entire complex, and still be holidays. It’s all about the love you bring to the day — and sharing that love with the people who matter most to you, whoever they might be.

Yes, my modest Thanksgiving feast could never possibly replicate those traditional dinners at my aunt and uncle’s place, or the ways we used to entertain the whole family at my childhood home. But it had the most important ingredient of all, which left everyone at the table feeling satisfied: heart.

Wishing everyone out there a happy holiday season!

What do you think?

The 6 Pluses (and Minuses) of Christmas in China

Christmas is coming, and once again, I’ll be celebrating the holiday in China, the sixth consecutive year since moving here in 2013. Over the years, I’ve vacillated between loving the holidays here and longing for a Christmas just like those I used to know back in America.

So as I began pondering the forthcoming holidays, I began thinking of some of the positives and negatives of spending Christmas in China, a country that doesn’t celebrate the holiday. And inspired by the 12 Days of Christmas, I actually came up with a total 12 of them (six pluses, six minuses). So here goes!

The Pluses:

#1: You can celebrate the holiday on your own terms, and not feel as if you have to conform to the expectations of your family, friends or neighbors. That means having the freedom to create new traditions and expectations (including creating a Christmas with Chinese characteristics), and also being inspired by how people in China celebrate the holiday.

#2: You are spared the onslaught of Christmas ads urging you to buy, buy, buy — sometimes even in late October — which can feel overwhelming and exhausting.

#3: You can often find great joy in sharing Christmas with those new to the holiday, introducing your family or country’s unique traditions to them. (See 3 Joys of Celebrating Christmas With Someone Who Didn’t Grow Up With It)

#4: You can score inexpensive, yet charming, Christmas decorations on Taobao to deck out your place, as China remains a major producer of Christmas decorations for the entire world. (I once snapped up a cute Christmas tree on the platform for the RMB equivalent of around $3, complete with a star, ornaments and even twinkling lights.)

#5: You’re liberated from the usual crazy Christmas calendar, brimming with events, parties and activities every single week and/or weekend, since most of your friends, family and workplaces don’t celebrate the season. That means you can enjoy a more chill holiday season at your own pace.

#6: Since Christmas isn’t a holiday in China, the shops are always open and services available on Dec 25, which potentially opens up all sorts of great possibilities for celebrating (and getting that last-minute gift).

The Minuses:

#1: You may miss family, friends and neighbors and get a case of the “Christmas blues” being far away from loved ones. If you’re like me, you might just discover the true meaning of the song “White Christmas”.

#2: You generally won’t get Christmas off if you work or go to school, forcing you to be in the classroom or office on a day when you’d rather be home.

#3: It may never “look a lot like Christmas” if you don’t live in a large urban area in China, as you won’t likely encounter many decorations or Christmas trees around the neighborhood.

#4: Celebrating Christmas just like back home can get expensive. If you do live in a large urban area in China that includes foreigners, but you’re on a limited budget, you might feel chagrined to find you cannot afford to attend the “expat Christmas dinners” and other parties that come with a hefty price or entrance fee. You might also balk at the pricing for hard-to-find foods or ingredients only sold at select upscale markets or online stores.

#5: You might not like how locals choose to interpret Christmas or celebrate it, compared to your cultural or national traditions (such as giving out Christmas Eve Apples, or taking the holiday as an opportunity for romance).

#6: You may struggle to find the same style of Christmas decorations that you remember from back home, despite the enormous amount of offerings on Taobao. Your favorite decorations might be made in China, but not sold to people here.

If you’ve ever spent Christmas in China (or another country that doesn’t celebrate) or know someone who has, what do you think are the pluses and minuses of that?

Here’s hoping you have a very happy holiday season, wherever you are in the world!

P.S.: If you liked this, check out my earlier post The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It).

‘Fruitful’ Idea: An Easy Christmas Gift for Family, Friends in China

Many years ago, I experienced what was, to me, one of my most unusual Christmases. My fear of spending the holiday alone in Hangzhou, as I was single at the time, drove me to purchase a train ticket and flee to the one city where I actually had some close friends: Zhengzhou, in Central China’s Henan province. My old friend and Mandarin tutor Wang Bin connected me with some friends of his, who welcomed me into their apartment, bereft of even a single Christmas decoration, and offered me a guest room.

Even though it didn’t look a lot like Christmas in their home or on the streets, I felt determined to stir up a little holiday cheer on my own. Among my plans? Buying Christmas gifts for my Chinese friends and even host family.

Of course, this led to yet another great seasonal dilemma, one not unique to my situation in China. What Christmas gifts should I buy?

How many times had I grappled with this question in the US during past Christmases, only to face the same issue in Zhengzhou, China.

I still don’t remember what I purchased for my host family, but do recall picking up a few fuzzy scarves for my Zhengzhou friends. I have no idea if anyone liked them, but I can tell you I spent probably way more time and energy than the task deserved

Navigating Christmas in China has grown easier over the years, as I’ve celebrated many Christmases here and gained a better sense for how Chinese people view the holiday.

And now that I have family here, thanks to my marriage to a Chinese citizen, I’ve done my share of gift-giving with them. It’s not quite like doing Christmas presents back in my home country of America, but it’s also a lot easier.

If you have a similar dilemma, such as worrying about what to buy for everyone from Chinese friends or a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend to a Chinese host family, then let’s talk Christmas gifts for people in China, with an easy suggestion sure to please all ages.

Here are things to keep in mind:

#1: People in China don’t generally expect gifts for Christmas

The good news? In general, people don’t have strong expectations for gifts. The vast majority of Chinese didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas with their families, as it isn’t a traditional holiday here. You won’t encounter people making out their “gift list” to give to others, or announcing what they want in advance. (This holds true for holidays in China where people do traditionally give gifts, like Chinese New Year.)

That takes a lot of the pressure off your shoulders, as you shouldn’t feel like you have to find “the perfect gift”. People in China don’t even aim for “the perfect gift” at Chinese New Year for others, so why should you fret about it for Christmas?

#2: If you’re going to give a gift, make it quality

Here’s the key though — whatever you choose, think quality when you buy. Face matters a lot in gift-giving in China. When you present something to someone else, it also reflects on you and your relationship with them. So as much as possible, aim for the best you can afford.

#3: When in doubt, go for my No 1 gift choice in China (with a Christmas twist)

I’ve done a lot of posts on gift-giving, including The Top 6 Gifts Sure To Please Your Chinese Family published on the Huffington Post, as well as my classic post Giving Gifts to Your Chinese Family – A Modest Guide.

But whenever pressed for an easy solution, I always suggest the No 1 gift beloved by Chinese of all ages — fruit!

Chinese people think of fruit as dessert. It caps off even the most lavish of banquets, and people frequently give it to guests, friends and loved ones as a treat or gift. And when people buy fruit, they have high expectations for taste and even freshness, which means you can find delectable choices at even the most humble of fruit stores. (This last point also explains why I’ve “rediscovered” some fruits here in China — see How China (and My Chinese Husband) Helped Me Love Grapes & Other Fresh Fruit.)

Now you can buy fruit in boxes or cases, or get a fruit basket (see my article 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China for guidance on fruit baskets). You can purchase these online through the major Chinese e-commerce sites — Taobao (or its English version Baopals) and JD — which are probably one of the best ways to zero in on high-quality offerings in any season. Local supermarkets will also have fruit in boxes or cases, and sometimes fruit baskets. You can always find both at the pervasive fruit stores all across urban areas in China (proof of how much Chinese adore their fruit). If you’re living overseas and want to send a fruit basket to someone in China, try Gift Baskets Overseas (disclosure: I’m an affiliate).

However, if you want to give fruit as a Christmas gift in China, purchase apples.

Why apples? Here’s an explanation from Why Christmas:

People give apples on Christmas Eve because in Chinese Christmas Eve is called “Ping’an Ye” (平安夜), meaning peaceful or quiet evening, which has been translated from the carol ‘Silent Night’. The word for apple in Mandarin is “píngguǒ” (苹果) which sounds like the word for peace.

Giving apples on Christmas Eve has emerged as a new kind of tradition here in China. Even I’ve received my share. And Chinese generally people love good apples, tradition or no, making them a wonderful present.

I highly recommend giving Xinjiang Aksu sweetheart apples (阿克苏冰糖心苹果) for their sugary goodness sure to delight during the holidays. China also has a variety of Fuji apples (富士苹果) that make for delicious gifts too.

Optionally, stores now sell special Christmas Eve apples decorated with Chinese characters just for the occasion, which obviously cost more.

If you opt for a fruit basket, that’s fine too. Look for one that includes apples!

While apples and other fruit make for an easy Christmas gift solution, they aren’t the only possibilities.

For more ideas, take a look at my article The Top 6 Gifts Sure To Please Your Chinese Family published on the Huffington Post, as well as my classic post Giving Gifts to Your Chinese Family – A Modest Guide. And yes, for gift baskets, see my article 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.

What do you think is the easiest kind of Christmas gift to give to Chinese loved ones, family or friends here in China?

Our 1st Christmas Together, and the Surprisingly Simple Gift That Moved Me to Tears

When my husband and I first began dating many years before, he had just quit his job at the company that also employed me. And that fall he started a master’s program in Shanghai, which only offered him a paltry stipend every month.

Translation? He was mostly broke.

That didn’t trouble me, though. I had a good job. And besides, I was really happy that Jun was working towards the career of his dreams. I didn’t mind being the “breadwinner” in our relationship, because Jun was so extraordinarily generous and loving in so many ways, and that was something you could never put a price on.

As our first Christmas together arrived that December, I never pressured Jun to shower me with lavish gifts. When he asked what I wanted, I insisted I didn’t need anything and told him to save his money instead.

So of course, he bought me something anyhow. (I shouldn’t have been surprised. Jun famously borrowed money from his friend just to treat me on our first official date together.)

As it turned out, it was just a small, inexpensive token — a guide to the birds of China, with full-color photos, the ideal gift for his bird-loving girlfriend.

But that wasn’t the only gift. He also presented me with what looked like a scroll. But after a more careful study, I realized it was just a piece of paper rolled up and tied with a piece of string. What was he doing giving me this?

As I unraveled the paper, I discovered a series of hand-drawn comics scribbled on it. While the stick figures made it clear Jun’s calling was decidedly not in art, one thing did become apparent — how much Jun loved me. Because there on this humble piece of paper, he had drawn a simple comic commemorating how we became a couple, from that humid train ride to Yiwu to the unforgettable evening by the West Lake when he professed his true feelings for me.

How did Jun even think to draw this for me? And how did he not feel even slightly self-conscious over doing it? All I know is, I remember feeling a rush of tenderness for him at the gesture. It was the stuff of made-for-TV movies, the kind of thing you imagine only happens to someone else.

I’m pretty sure a tear of gladness — or two — fell across my cheeks that day.

Those hand-drawn comics would become a regular from Jun while he was a student. And I came to treasure every one of them.

Have you ever been surprised or moved by a gift from someone?

P.S.: Need some last-minute gift ideas? Have a look at this year’s holiday gift roundup to peruse the best of my advice on gifts, including The Top 6 Gifts Sure To Please Your Chinese Family.

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? 

On Having the Christmas Blues in China

Christmas in China might sound cool and exciting -- but sometimes it's not as fun as it seems
Christmas in China might sound cool and exciting — but sometimes it’s not as fun as it seems

This year marks my third consecutive Christmas I will have spent in China since moving back here in November of 2013. I’d love to say it’s all tinsel, glitter and joy — but as I’ve learned over the years, it’s not always easy to spend the holidays in a country that doesn’t celebrate them.

Add to that the fact that I’ve come down with the flu twice this month (maybe three times — my throat is feeling scratchy as a I write this) and you’ve got a holiday season that really doesn’t have much of a holiday feel to me. Sigh.

That said, I know I’m not alone in this feeling.

Last year when I wrote about The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It), lots of you wrote in to say how much that post touched you. (And I was touched to see my words resonate with so many others.)

So this year, I’m once again sending you on to The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It):

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.

You can read the full post here.

Have yourselves a Merry little Christmas wherever you are in the world — and sending you hugs and understanding from China.

That Shanghai Christmas My Chinese Husband Forgot The Presents

I’ve come down with a huge cold recently and wasn’t able to write up something new for you this week, as I had hoped. But the good news is, I have a classic story that I wrote up as a guest post for Beijing Cream a few years ago — one I haven’t shared with you before. And because it’s a Christmas story (and the Christmas season has just begun) I thought you might enjoy it. 

In the meantime, I’m going to pop some Tylenol, burrow under the covers, and watch a few classic Christmas movies. 🙂


Christmas in ChinaWhen you spend Christmas in China as an expat, it’s easy to feel a little forgotten by the holiday season. But in 2004, when I lived in Shanghai, I had just visited the Shanghai Marriage Bureau to register with my Chinese sweetheart, John — a man who I had spent the previous two Christmases with — so I considered myself somehow immune to that feeling of isolation. Or so I thought.

My employer gave me Christmas off. John also had no classes that day, and promised to take a break from his dissertation work — work that, for the weeks leading up to the holiday, meant lengthy trips to Hangzhou and exhausting late evenings typing away at his computer.

Since I always loved playing “Santa Claus” to John, who of course never grew up with stories of this jolly old man, I presented him with his gifts first — two wool turtleneck sweaters, one in royal blue and another in deep maroon. John beamed at them, and I couldn’t help but smile with pride, knowing I’d nailed the perfect gifts.

“So, what did ‘Santa Claus’ bring me for Christmas?” I asked John. By then, he already understood that “Santa Claus” was our little euphemism for the gifts we gave to one another.

His smile evaporated. “I’m sorry.”

My heart sank as I noticed that no other gifts, cards or bags sat under our tiny artificial tree in the corner. “You forgot?”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. He never even celebrated Christmas until he met me, and even then, he usually left his gifts in plastic bags under the tree, sometimes even with the receipt. Plus, in late 2004, the pressure to finish the draft of his dissertation before Chinese New Year had probably distracted him so much he didn’t realize that this was, to his foreign wife, as important a time of year as guonian.

Yet I couldn’t think about any of that, not on a morning I had anticipated for weeks. Even a few pairs of socks — something he had been known to buy for me in past Christmases — would have cheered me. But the absence of any gift from my favorite “Santa Claus” only magnified the loneliness and isolation that can come from spending the holidays in a country where Christmas carols are often nothing more than great karaoke tunes. I hung my head and started to cry.

To John, though, my tears were a catalyst. “You wait here, I’m going to find something for you.” He jumped up, threw on his jeans and a sweater, and headed for the door.

A few hours later, a grinning John burst through the door with two plastic bags in hand. “Shengdan kuaile,” he said as he placed them in my hands.

Inside the first bag, I found several pairs of cotton socks in my favorite colors, including red and pink. But from the second, I pulled out a knit scarf and matching hat splashed in waves of brilliant apricot, creamy yellow, and a light toffee brown. Even the style, right down to the button on the brim of the hat, felt as unconventional as the clothes I wore outside the office. Only John could have known I would love this scarf and hat. That thought warmed me from head to toe, even in our drafty apartment, and turned a “forgotten Christmas” into something unforgettable.

P.S.: In the picture below, that’s me wearing the knit heat John gave me for Christmas!


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?