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!

4 Last-Minute Holiday Gift Ideas for Chinese Loved Ones

If you’ve saved your holiday shopping for the last minute and wonder what to buy for Chinese loved ones on your list, we’ve got you covered on this blog. Here are four last-minute holiday gift ideas to consider:

#4: Hats, gloves, scarves

People love getting new clothes for the holidays in China (so they can dress in a completely new outfit from head to toe), so winter clothing is always in season as a gift.

Hats, gloves and scarves offer the easiest options — you don’t need to know sizes to buy the perfect gift. Still, quality counts here and, if you’re buying for someone younger, style as well. To play it safe, opt for major brands such as Esprit, Gap, Uniqlo or Zara.

#3: Jewelry

Quality watches, earrings and necklaces in classic styles also shine as gifts for Chinese — and if you’re buying outside China, you can often find those with precious stones at better prices too. Unless you know the recipient well, stick to the most traditional pieces and settings from established brands or jewelers. Watches work well for men, while women will love earrings or necklaces.

#2: Foreign wines

Top-shelf wines from abroad bring great holiday cheer — and easy gift ideas as well, particularly for men. French wines remain favorites, but almost anything from Europe will make a splash. Learn more about buying foreign wines in this post.

#1: Fruit baskets and gourmet food baskets

If you’ve read every suggestion on this list and still feel stumped, then repeat after me — get a fruit basket or gourmet food basket. For more specific advice on this, see 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.

Need more last-minute holiday gift ideas for your Chinese loved ones? I’ve written extensively on the subject of gift-giving and recommend the following posts:

What did I miss? What other last-minute gift ideas would you recommend for Chinese loved ones?

P.S.: If you’re shopping this holiday season on, you can actually support Speaking of China — at no additional cost to you — by making a purchase through one of my affiliate links. Thanks!

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?

Forget the Critics: ‘Last Christmas’ w/ Henry Golding, Emilia Clarke Could Still Be a Classic

The movie “Last Christmas” caught my eye earlier this year for casting the handsome Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians” and “A Simple Favor”) and winsome Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) as the romantic leads. This made it one of the first major studio movies to feature an Asian man and a white woman at the heart of a holiday love story.

But the opening of “Last Christmas” in theaters on Nov 8 came with a little less holiday cheer in the mixed and slightly negative response from critics, leading to a 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 50 from Metacritic.

Surely, when the filmmakers put together a Christmas wish list, this wasn’t the kind of gift they were hoping for.

Yet, despite the critics, moviegoers have responded with great joy for this Christmas romantic comedy.

Just look at the numbers. To date, “Last Christmas” has grossed nearly $70 million worldwide at the box office and remained one of the top 10 films at the box office this past weekend. On Rotten Tomatoes, it earned a strong 81% approval rating among audiences and has received many passionate user reviews on IMDb (with the most popular titled “Why doesnt this have a higher rating?!”).

Even Rotten Tomatoes has already reconsidered its original take on the film, landing “Last Christmas” on its list of 20 Rotten Christmas Movies We Love with the following description:

Take the Mother of Dragons and the hot guy from Crazy Rich Asians, mix them with the music of George Michael, bring in Emma Thompson to co-write the script and Paul Feig to direct, and sprinkle a bit of holiday magic over the whole thing, and you’re looking at Last Christmas. Look, we get that the story is somewhat predictable — pretty much everyone figured out where it was going just from watching the trailer — and it’s all a tad overly sentimental, but with this kind of pedigree, it’s hard not to be charmed by its immensely likable stars and its feel-good fuzziness.

That list included other romantic comedies that drew a similarly lackluster response from the critics and have still gone on to become beloved Christmas favorites, such as “The Holiday” at 49%.

Moreover, it’s also worth remembering that the gold standard of all holiday movies – the classic 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” from Frank Capra – opened to mixed reviews, and even Capra himself found the response from critics largely cold.

Clearly, first impressions, especially on Christmas movies, don’t necessarily determine which movies endear themselves into our hearts enough to merit “classic” status.

So I say, forget the critics. “Last Christmas” could easily become another classic holiday film too. It’s just a matter of time. And if that happens, it could add some much needed diversity to a world of Christmas films featuring largely white romantic leads (Yes, Hallmark, I’m looking at you).

So give “Last Christmas” a look this holiday season – and let us know what you think. Do you believe it has the potential to become a holiday classic? Why or why not?

To learn more about the romantic comedy “Last Christmas”, you can visit the film’s page at IMDb, where you can watch the trailer too (which is also available on Youtube).

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).

Seeing Christmas Through the ‘Apple’ of China’s Eyes – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM! just published my post Seeing Christmas Through the ‘Apple’ of China’s Eyes. Here’s an excerpt:

The other day, while browsing Alibaba’s Tmall, the online giant’s popular virtual shopping center, I happened upon a Christmas item that I had never seen before: gift boxes for Christmas Eve Apples.

They had the kind of charming little Christmas trees, Santas, reindeer, snowmen and holiday greetings you would expect to find on cards or boxes at, say, a Hallmark store. Except you wouldn’t find such a product on any shelves of a Hallmark store. Never in America had I encountered boxes made explicitly for apples that you present on Christmas Eve — because no such tradition existed in my home country.

Yet, based on the stats for this online store in China, over 100,000 people have already ordered sets of 50 from them just this month. And that store has plenty of company, with tens of others vying to gain business from young people who want the perfect little box for their Christmas Eve Apples.

I had known for some years that China turned Christmas Eve into a time for giving apples, particularly among young, urban people (even though it’s not a tradition in any Western country that celebrates Christmas). But I didn’t realize you even needed special boxes for the apples!

It stood as proof of just how far the tradition has integrated itself into the lives of young, urban Chinese — that it had spawned an entire industry of packaging to support the custom.

You can head on over to WWAM BAM to read the rest of the piece. And if you like it, share it!

P.S.: If you’re looking for gift-giving ideas this holiday season for someone in China, yes, I’ve recommended apples — but you can also see other suggestions at my classic post on gift-giving in China.

‘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?