It’s that time of year again…

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.

 

Santa at the Manchester Christmas Markets

 

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!

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Gong He Xin Xi

New Year, New Resolutions. That’s usually how it goes. We associate a new year with a fresh start and a chance to start anew. It’s a tradition associated with New Years as much as the countdown and a kiss at midnight. December 31st came and went with the countdown, the midnight kiss and resolutions the next morning. Tick. Tick. Tick.

NYE Antics

NYE Antics

Before it got a little blurry

Before it got a little blurry

I know how to do New Year. Or so I thought. Six weeks later and another new year: Chinese New Year. The year of the Sheep. Spring Festival and a week long national holiday in China (though not for me). These guys know how to do New Years!! I couldn’t wait!! How different could it be? Countdown. Midnight Kiss. Resolutions. I’ve done this before. I was going to be fine. And I was. But I was also wrong. The Chinese New Year means something different. It is not just the beginning of a new year and the chance to begin anew, and so the traditions and customs are different. Celebrations begin on the eve before new year (that I can identify with) and culminate with the lantern festival fourteen days later. The Spring Festival is a time to honour deities and ancestors and spend time with family. People clean their homes to sweep out bad luck and make way for incoming good luck. They hang red decorations symbolising health, prosperity and good fortune. Red money envelopes are exchanged and firecrackers and fireworks are lit. My first Chinese New Year in Beijing was a mix of Chinese and Western traditions, with a few Diwali sentiments thrown in (why choose if you don’t have to?). There were the many meals with friends, the traditional jiaozi (dumplings) and many many many fireworks! Did I mentions the multiple firecrackers that make me jump out of my skin? I swear they’re louder here! New Years Day saw us gather (post hangover) to go to a temple fair, a must for anyone in Beijing over this holiday. IMG_4427-0 The temple was calm and quiet (rare in this town). Everywhere you looked there were people hanging charms from the trees, making wishes for the coming year and lighting incense before bowing three times as they prayed to deities and ancestors.

A woman bows in prayer

A woman bows in prayer

It was beautiful to see and be able to share it with people it meant so much to. For my part, I made a wish, milled flour (a lesser known tradition) and braved the cold for so long I could no longer feel my face! The post temple fortune cookies and hot pizza were greatly appreciated! I shared the precious days off with friends and my fiancé, laughed a great deal, indulged in delicious food (including making jiaozi) and made a few memories I’ll hold dear. The perfect blend of Chinese, Western and Indian New Years. & I saw once again how similar we all are no matter where we come from and what language we speak.

IMG_4425-0

D&I

Holidays Away From Home

I first wrote this blog post a couple of weeks ago, but a busy schedule, birthdays and a temperamental VPN conspired against me and I’m now only just managing to post it!

First Beijing Birthday

Diwali has now come and gone, but I still wanted to share my thoughts.  And so, here it is, dated & delayed, but here all the same(!)

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After a Summer of London, New York and of course Beijing I can’t believe it’s October.  Usually in London the stores would be filled with Halloween goodies and Christmas treats would begin to make their way onto the shelves.  There’s no avoiding the fact that holiday season is approaching!

To me the end of Summer will always mean new stationery and books, new shoes and scarves and an incredible, vibrancy as the leaves turned golden and everything is coated in new possibilities.  This time of year also means Navratri (the nine day festival celebrating the different aspects of the Hindu Goddess Durga) with Diwali not far behind.

Being away from home meant that for the first time I was unable to celebrate Navratri with family and friends.  It is without doubt my favourite festival and it saddens me that those nine evenings passed unmarked my first year here.  This year is also my first Diwali away from family.  Whilst in University I would always return home to celebrate with everyone.  Flying home for the weekend is unfortunately not an option right now!  But I’m slowly realising that beginning my own traditions, is.

‘Diwali Beijing Style’ gives me the chance to make not just my own traditions, but our own ones; this is the first Diwali I will spend with my fiancé in our new home, as we begin to plan for our married life.  And whilst it won’t be the same, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.  I’m a little excited as I start to think about the possibilities!  Instead of cooking family favourites, maybe we order pizza (a firm Palan Favourite!) and in lieu of sending cards to people, we Skype home.  I know I’ll still light candles throughout the apartment, but maybe I’ll get creative adding fresh flowers and floating candles into the mix.  And just because I can’t be with everyone at home doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate and share the day with new friends.  Maybe some of these new rituals will be ones we carry with us through our lives and will feature in our celebrations for years to come.

I won’t lie, the thought of being away from everyone at this time of year still saddens me, but I am excited about all the new possibilities.  Perhaps that’s a sign of growing up?  Perhaps it’s just what happens when you find yourself away from home on the holidays.  Either way I’m looking forward to making our first Diwali away from home, in our new home, memorable.

The Remnants of a Midnight Feast on Diwali

How do you celebrate holidays when you’re away from home?