Saturday, December 27, 2008

One version of a Beijing Christmas

Holidays are slightly daunting here. I suppose they are daunting anywhere if you don’t have a family on which to rely to fill that day on the calendar. But as a foreigner in China, to celebrate is more of a decision than an expectation.

China has picked up on the marketing potential of Christmas. While a Beijing Thanksgiving could have passed without my knowing, the reminders were everywhere for Christmas. Shopping malls have 60ft decorated Christmas trees outside and Holiday season sales. Though, these sales are overlapping and muddled with sales for the quickly approaching Spring Festival (Lunar New Year). Since both holidays are dominated by red it is slightly unclear what is being celebrated. Western restaurants, cafes, bars, and hotels put up English signs featuring their set menus for Christmas dinner and the servers pressure you to make reservations. Businesses of all genres decorate their storefronts with paper Santa Claus cutouts, tinsel garlands, and even fake spray snow in a can. Supermarkets sell fake Christmas trees that come pre-decorated if you want. I am sure that here in Beijing one could also buy a real Christmas tree for a price. Christmas music is common in establishments and unfortunately on cell phone ring tones, but not nearly as ubiquitously as in America.

All this hype gives one a sense of urgency about making some kind of plan. My choices were: shell out 1000 Yuan ($150)a head for a luxurious dinner, pay 200 a head for a Japanese buffet, join some friends for drinks at their apartment and then go out on the town, make dinner at a friend’s oven equipped apartment, or eat dumplings with my Chinese roommate. I chose to spend Christmas Eve out on the town and Christmas day cooking and baking in the much coveted oven.

Chinese don’t spend Christmas with their families and most foreigners don’t have families here, so Christmas has become an excuse to hit the clubs and bars. After all, what’s Christmas without a Rudolf character piloting a Congo line of scantily glad, glow stick waving, Chinese girls around the dance floor to a blaring remix of “Celebration?”

Christmas day, on the other hand felt much more wholesome. My English friend brought his mother’s Christmas recipes and three of us worked together to create a feast of stuffed apples, stuffed peppers, roast potatoes and carrots, salad, and half a turkey. The other half apparently went to another foreigner at Wal-Mart who also seemed overwhelmed at the idea of a full-sized turkey in her toaster oven. We added mulled wine, cheese, and apple pie to the menu and ate and drank ourselves into that familiar holiday digestive state somewhere between fulfillment and misery. The night finished with a scrabble game and a Skype call to my family to share in their real-time holiday.

Just before going to bed on Christmas Eve, I put Santa Claus hats stuffed with goodies and chocolate outside my Chinese and Italian roommates’ doors. My note in Chinese said that it was from Santa Claus (literally “Christmas old man”) but I think my poor Chinese calligraphy must have given me away. My Chinese roommate saw right through it and put a note on my door in English that read: “thank you, nice is young santa claus. I hope you next year more beautiful." I have no idea what that means, and it might be an insult. But, I think she liked the chocolate.

Merry belated Christmas all and Happy New Year!


  1. "I hope you next year more beautiful." That is a cryptic remark, but somehow very funny. It's so incongruous to think of Santa Claus and Christmas music, wholly Western concepts and sounds, making a presence in China.

    It sounds like you spent a pretty good Christmas à la chinoise, Laura!

    Happy New Year - the January 1st one, I mean.


  2. It sounds that you celebrated Christmas à la chinoise very well, Laura!

    "I hope you next year more beautiful" is cryptic, but somehow very funny.

    It's so incongruous to think of Santa Claus and Christmas music - both wholly Western concepts - making a presence in China.

    Happy New Year - the January 1st one, I mean!

  3. I hope you are planning to publish these musings at some point. You write so well and it is fun to read. In fact, that should be your career. Have you ever read anything by Peter Mayle? Read A Year in Provence. You are just as good.