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.

Christmas Is Your Chinese New Year: Fascinating Similarities – Pub’d on China Daily

China Daily published my latest column Christmas is your Chinese New Year: Fascinating similarities. Here’s an excerpt:

“Christmas is your Chinese New Year.”

I’ve heard this phrase uttered to me countless times by people in China when the holidays roll around, whether Christmas or Chinese New Year.

I once thought the comparison a bit of a stretch, wondering how the holiday of Santa Claus of my childhood in the United States could possibly resemble a celebration involving fireworks and lion dances. But over the years I’ve recognized that Chinese New Year and Christmas share fascinating, and sometimes surprising, commonalities.

Here are some interesting ones I’ve observed:

Good fortune

Many Chinese New Year customs I’ve experienced at my in-laws’ home in Zhejiang province revolve around auspiciousness, such as the red couplets and firecrackers used to ensure a propitious start to the new year. But Christmas traditions I’ve grown up with are also said to represent good fortune, including the centerpiece of all decorations: the Christmas tree.

The color red

Red is a beloved shade for Christmas and a lucky one for Chinese New Year.

Marking beginnings

While Chinese New Year signals the start of the new lunar year, Christmas once fell on the exact date of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and a time traditionally marking the “rebirth” of the sun.


Both Chinese New Year and Christmas dazzle with plenty of lights in decorations and rituals. My father-in-law loves adorning the family home in Zhejiang with traditional red lanterns for Chinese New Year, just as my husband and I enjoy decking our Christmas tree and home with strings of colored lights. Growing up, my family would drive to Christmas light displays in town where we would gaze upon twinkling Santas, reindeer and stars. So naturally, I felt right at home attending my first Lantern Festival in China, surrounded by huge, glowing displays shaped like Chinese zodiac animals.

You can read the full column here. And if you like it, share it!

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?

Christmas Tree a Symbol of Love, Acceptance Across Cultures – Pub’d on China Daily

Recently, China Daily published my holiday-themed column Christmas tree a symbol of love, acceptance across cultures. Here’s an excerpt:

My old Christmas tree-the very one I bought years ago at a Hangzhou supermarket-was the last thing I expected to find in my in-laws’ storage room in their rural Zhejiang home.

My husband Jun and I had just moved back to China after spending years in the United States, my home country. We had decided to stay at the family home during our transition back to life in China, which just happened to overlap with the start of the Christmas season.

While I recognized we probably couldn’t “deck the halls” with the same flair as my family had done in the US, I still longed for that one holiday necessity-a Christmas tree.

The last time we had owned an artificial tree in China, we lived in a small apartment in Shanghai, where it always occupied a place of importance in our living room every Christmas. But before moving to the US, we had left the tree behind with Jun’s family, like many other possessions we could never have packed because of the limited space in our luggage.

I knew his parents, frugal by nature, cherished the many practical household items we had passed on to them. Yet, if there was one thing I felt certain they had already jettisoned from our Shanghai days, it was the old Christmas tree. After all, they hadn’t grown up celebrating the holiday, and I had never glimpsed a single Christmas decoration in their rural home.

Why would they hold onto something that ostensibly had no obvious place or purpose in their rural Chinese lives?

So after moving back to China, when I brought up with my husband the idea of having a Christmas tree, I had assumed it would lead to talk of taking the bus to the largest supermarket in the county, sure to have a corner dressed in tinsel, filled with everything from rosy-cheeked plastic Santas to artificial evergreens of all sizes covered in shiny baubles and twinkling lights.

Instead, hours later, my husband poked his head into the bedroom, to bring great news of a package he and his parents had pulled out of one of the storage rooms: my old Christmas tree.

You can read the full piece here — and if you like it, share it! 

Wherever you are, here’s wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

A photo of the Christmas tree we used during our Shanghai days.

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?

Pub’d on China Daily: My Christmas Story from 2013

Recently, China Daily published my Christmas story in a piece titled Christmas memories from foreigners living in China. (I know I’m a bit late updating you but I’ve been busy battling a cold and also caring for my husband, who caught the flu. But hey, if you subscribe to the 12 days of Christmas, it’s still technically the holidays. 😉 ) Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

In December 2013, I had to spend Christmas in the Hangzhou countryside with my husband’s family, who never had the tradition to celebrate this holiday.

It was my first Christmas away from America in many years, and the loss felt palpable in this rural village, where there wasn’t even a hint of the holidays. But in the end, I made a resolution — if they could not bring Christmas to me, I would bring it to them.

You can read the full story at the China Daily, along with other Christmas tales from foreigners. And if you like it, share it!

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?