So This Is Christmas…In China

A very Merry Tibetan Christmas from my friends and family to yours

This is the first time in my life I haven’t been in the United States for Christmas and New Years. While I obviously miss all my friends and family back home, I don’t regret my decision to stay in Beijing at all. I’m slowly getting adjusted to “real world” life here, but I’m still searching for my own place to live and flying back and forth between opposite ends of the globe in the span of a week just wouldn’t have been the most logical choice. And while it’s definitely not America, Beijing has it own unique spin on Christmas to offer us foreigners and I genuinely had a lot of fun over the holiday weekend.


I’m fully aware that Thanksgiving was over a month ago, but since I was too busy to get a blog post up then, I’ll take advantage of this holiday themed post to fill you in. Unlike Christmas, which is generally speaking a Western/Christian holiday, Thanksgiving is 100% American. That means in both China and Scotland it’s solely the American study abroad students (and whoever is fortunate enough to be tagging along with them that day) that indulge in the goodness that is turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and rolls.

In Scotland, 4 or 5 of the girls from Holy Cross that I was abroad with cooked the entire dinner, and my only job was to eat (which wasn’t a bad gig). In China, all the CET students helped out with some part – prep, cook, or cleanup – of the Thanksgiving meal. We cooked in the industrial sized CET kitchen and ate in the cafeteria. Was it the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had? Probably not. However, it was the first time I’ve eaten mashed potatoes and stuffing with chopsticks (and I thought rice was hard), a good amount of our teachers came to eat with us, and the turkey tasted great (as it was cooked professionally). All in all, good times. Of course, even if CET is 97% Americans, we still had class the next day.

Chinese Christmas 101

I would venture to guess people probably want to know if the Chinese celebrate Christmas. The answer is, it depends on your meaning of both “celebrate” and “Christmas”. Probably due to the growing foreign population and the rapid Westernization of many aspects of Chinese society/culture, Christmas has definitely made its way into the cities of China. There are light displays on both the inside and outside of malls, people throw Christmas themed parties, and restaurants and stores all have Christmas discounts.

However, light up trees read “Lucky Christmas”, there’s no eggnog at these Christmas parties, and the discounts, actually that’s one place where China and America might not differ. Christmas is almost purely a commercial holiday here. There’s no other way to really explain it. Chinese people may celebrate it, but from a Westerners perspective, their way of celebrating it has no meaning. In large part, it seems like they’re just acting out what they think one would do at Christmas, but because there’s no meaning behind it, to us it seems strange.

My First Chinese Christmas Party

This is a prime example. Last Friday afternoon, I was very nicely invited to the office Christmas party of a friend of a friend. There was a giant image that read Merry Christmas, and a quick gift exchange at the end, but outside of that, it wasn’t exactly Christmas-y. The program of events consisted of people performing on stage, or the whole group playing a game, and if you lost the game, you then had to go perform on stage. Take a peak at one of these performances (and prepare your ears):

If you couldn’t tell, that’s a woman doing Zumba aerobics on stage while every woman over the age of 35 and every kid under the age of 10 attempts to follow her movements, which after a while strongly resembled those of a an exotic dancer (clothes on, of course).

How was my Christmas?

Awesome. On Christmas Eve Eve, my friends that I graduated with from Holy Cross, who also happen to be studying Chinese in Beijing, had a Christmas party at their apartment. They invited their Chinese class, which is a pretty internationally diverse crowd, so after we had run through every American Christmas song on Youtube, I was introduced to Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese “Christmas” music. A few beers and bottles of wine later,we went to this place called Global Club (which is my spot), and danced/raged on stage until 3 in the morning.

Christmas Day was pretty laid back. My family has our Christmas party on Christmas Eve, so because of the time difference, when I gave them a call it was December 25th in Beijing and December 24th in the States. That night, my same friends and I ate our Christmas dinner at a Tibetan restaurant (not that the restaurant was serving an American style Christmas dinner, we just wanted to go there that night). Picture the exact opposite of what Christmas dinner is like back in the States, and you might be close to what we experienced in this restaurant. I was really camera happy this weekend, so I took more video:

This is what I was watching while I was eating my naan bread and spinach dip, Tibetan mac n’ cheese, fried yoghurt and mashed potato balls, fried yak and mashed potato balls, and yak dumplings. Just some Tibetan people having a good time, singing, dancing, while I’m eating and enjoying a can of Tibet’s finest brew.

A Tibetan Christmas Dinner

Later that night, after getting back from my first Tibetan cultural experience, I was able to sit in my living room with my family via webcam and enjoy Christmas morning (Christmas night my time) with them. A big thank you to whoever invented Skype for making that possible.

So what is Christmas in China?

Who knows. You may not have gotten this impression after what you just read, but the Chinese do Christmas just fine. If you think Christmas means getting dressed up in a suit and tie, going to church, eating a fancy ham dinner, and opening tons of presents that a big man in a red suit put under that pine tree in your living room, unfortunately, I think you’ll be a little upset if you ever spend Christmas here.

However, if Christmas means being able to party (responsibly) with some of your best friends in a foreign country, eat fried yoghurt and yak balls while watching Tibetan people dance, and enjoy Christmas morning with your family, even if your only physical presence is on a computer screen, then you’ll be just fine here.

I guess in the end, Christmas is whatever you make of it. It doesn’t really matter what it means to other people or how they celebrate it – sometimes you just have to go and search out your own meaning.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!

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