Christmas always brings conflicting feelings for me—a sense of nostalgia for home and yet disdain for its now rampant commercialism.
I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas, and Beijing made it easier to escape the holiday stress, simply because there were no expectations, emotional or material-wise. "There is a lot of sweetness in Christmas, and here in Beijing, I can appreciate its being because the wrappings are gone," I wrote in a Christmas card to my sister during my first year in Beijing.
I also received a Christmas card from dear family friends. "Christmas is a time of traditions and memories. But, it is also a time of love and friendship. As you celebrate a half a world away we know that old traditions and new friendships will find a place in your heart."
Meanwhile, Christmas, to most Beijingers, was only about some decorations and a little partying with no emotional involvement.
I attempted to get into the Christmas spirit by stringing some lights on some decorative twigs in my apartment as well as adding some baubles. When I offered our security guard a box of chocolates, he hid in the guardhouse.
I also bought some China-themed gifts for my family, as well as some gifts for my Chinese friends and colleagues. I found gifts to be an effective way of getting to know them a little better and breaking down the sometimes steely façade.
Yet despite being "on holiday" from the Holidays, I couldn't completely free myself from the shackles of Christmas stress. To my dismay, I discovered that the tiny tubes of wrapping paper I had bought only contained enough paper to wrap one gift each.
I also caused a bit of a public spectacle at the post office with all my parcels and envelopes. The woman standing next to me took great interest in what I was writing on my envelopes. Indeed, in China, I sometimes feel like an exotic angelfish in a tank.
My first Christmas in Beijing was surreal. The waiters and waitresses wearing antlers or Santa Claus hats and office Christmas lunches did make me feel a little closer to home.
A Chinese friend invited me to spend Christmas Eve in a massage parlor which looked like a Roman temple with Latin inscriptions on its façade—not quite the American-style Christmas I was used to. Inside, there were chandeliers and a plastic Christmas tree bogged down with decorations. Several women in Santa Claus caps and fur-lined shawls were stationed at the entrance.
After the massage session, my friend and I watched a live coverage of the variety show going on downstairs. The show featured lots of slapstick; a man dressed as the Monkey King, girls in Santa caps and miniskirts singing shrilly, and my masseur now moonlighting as an acrobat, doing a balancing act with a porcelain flower pot.
Over the years in China, I have come to enjoy the unique quirks that come with the festive season in China. Last Christmas, my Chinese boyfriend and I traveled to his hometown in rural northwest China. When we arrived at the train station, we were greeted with a lot of stares because of the Santa Claus caps we were wearing, and my boyfriend's father was curious what the caps were about, so I tried to explain the concept of Santa Claus to him. I think he understood, and my gifts for the family were gleefully unwrapped.
I have finally made peace with my feelings for the holidays, and Santa was the key to it all: a bearer of gifts and goodwill, and a concept that could be universally understood. In my native United States, it just happened to be personified by a jolly old man with a beard. Yes, there is a Santa Claus!
The author is an American working in Beijing
Copyedited by Craig Crowther
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