I should say it’s somehow already that time of year again. In true style the holidays have rolled around faster than we realised and the merriment is in full swing.
Last holiday season saw us back in London after a very last minute decision to see our families. Their looks of surprise to find us on the doorstep were priceless and worth the long haul flight and subsequent jetlag. Therefore, that means this will be our first Christmas in China – and our first married Christmas(!).
In London for me the holiday season begins with my first red cup of the year (how can you possibly resist Starbucks’ Christmas in a Cup?!) and the lights being put up in town. The sound of Christmas music in stores (which we inevitably tire of by the time it actually is Christmas) and the markets that spring up throughout the city, with their mulled wine and treats.
Here in Beijing the situation seems ‘same same but different’. I still get my red cups, the malls and storefronts are bejewelled with lights and decorations, and there’s definitely a lot of Christmas tunes playing. Same, same and same. But different. With it not being a national holiday here, there is not the same sense of anticipation and excitement. But that is not to say Christmas is limited to shops, restaurants and malls. With large numbers of Chinese students returning home from Western countries for the holidays, China has begun to embrace Christmas. Like so many foreign customs which China has for centuries absorbed, this holiday too is developing its own Chinese characteristics.
Here in China Christmas trees are called ‘Trees of Light’ and are decorated with paper chains, and flowers. Some homes are decorated with beautiful paper lanterns and stockings made of muslin are hung. Santa Claus is called ‘Sheng dan lao ren’ meaning Old Christmas Man and instead of elves to help him, he is accompanied by his sisters (young women dressed as elves). In Beijing he is often shown playing the saxophone – I’m not really sure why. A growing custom is to gift apples wrapped in coloured paper on Christmas eve (the produce, not the products!). In Mandarin Christmas Eve is referred to as ‘Ping an ye’ meaning silent or quiet night, and the word for apple is ‘Ping guo’ which sounds very similar – and so a new tradition is born.
But without an opportunity to go home and spend time with family, here, this holiday lacks something. It’s interesting to me that in a city that seems ever more commercial, where image, consumerism and the luxury goods market are ever present, that the true meaning of Christmas (or any holiday) is brought home to me. Without being able to spend time with their loved ones at home, Christmas in China feels like Valentine’s Day or Chinese New Year at home: a good excuse to socialise, eat good food and have some fun. Back in the UK it takes on much more significance because we can go home to our families and enjoy some quality time with them. That really is what this holiday is about (for me at least).
As my first Christmas away from family approaches, I’m starting to wonder what it will look like and what it all means. So far I know that I’m excited to spend my first Christmas with my husband in our home in Beijing. I know I’ll be hoping for a little bit of snow! & I know it’ll be a great opportunity to relax, catch up with friends and see some more of the city (pollution permitting). I’m looking forward his cooking, to starting some of our own traditions. & I’m looking forward to going apple shopping!