Christmas Overseas: Lessons Learned

I was 18 years old, in China on my gap year, and it was my first Christmas ever away from my family. I don’t know who it was harder on, me or my family. I’m not a big Christmas person, so being in a country with no snow and a very weird relationship to the holiday (very few people seemed to celebrate the actual holiday, but it was a great reason to throw a party in the weeks leading up it!) didn’t make a difference to me. What I missed, though, was the family and food. I was lucky though to have a lot of good friends to celebrate the season with, and it was a Christmas that I’ll never forget.


Christmas 2007, (left to right) Hamish, Alie, and Andy

One of my favorite memories from that Christmas was decorating a tree in a friend’s apartment. I’m still not 100% sure how they got a tree, lights, and decorations, but with a little creativity an a lot of beer we did manage to put together a half decent Christmas tree. As the Beijing Olympics were coming up the following year, we opted to use one of the mascots Huanhuan as our star on top of the tree. What made this experience special was the people I was with, more so than the traditionalism of decorating the tree. Which is, when you get down to it, what Christmas is all about anyway.


Huan Huan at the top of the tree!

I did have to work Christmas day, though I made sure all my lessons were about Christmas–which my students loved! I didn’t mind working that day as much as I had trouble with the very early morning Skype call that I made to home. I love Skype when I travel for conversations home, but I hate it when it comes to events. Inevitably someone says, “You should Skype us! It’ll be like you’re there too!” Well, it’s not. After the novelty of it wears off, people forget about the computer and go back to their in person conversations and you’re stuck there with nothing to do, wishing you were there. Those Skype calls for holidays and birthdays always made me feel home sick the most. If you’re going to Skype home for the holidays, I highly recommend that you set time limits and person limits for the call.


Much beer went into the decorating of the tree that year

“Merry Christmas! Unfortunately this year you cannot have the turkey, but you can have Chinese food!” So read one of the text messages my friend and I received from a student on Christmas day. Food was tough for me when living overseas. I love Chinese food, but there were always things that I’d constantly miss. So when Christmas rolled around my food obsession cranked in to high gear–all I wanted my my Grandmother’s cooking! That text message sealed it for me, I didn’t care what we had, I wanted western food for Christmas. Well, be careful what you wish for because my Christmas dinner that year was pizza because it was the only western food available in the town I was living in. We both went for the “special,” pizza topped with tuna and corn. Not exactly turkey and stuffing, but I got western food, remixed Christmas carols, and something different to mark the occasion. Just like with the tree, I learned that day that it’s not about the tradition, but it is about the people you share it with and there is a joy to making your own traditions in the spirit of the holiday.


Hamish and Andy getting a little out of hand during our Christmas celebration

The second time I moved to China, I was only there for the fall school semester, and I booked my tickets to be home in time for Christmas. I arrived back in Canada late on the evening of the 23rd, did laundry, repacked my bag, and was back on the road to see family the very next morning. This quick turn around time meant that I had to do all my shopping in Nanjing before flying home. I had to get pretty creative with the gifts, as everyone simply asked for “something Chinese.” If I was to do it all again, I’d have made a list of everyone who needed a gift and started searching earlier than 3 days before my flight. Being more organized would make it easier to find something more meaningful to each person–rather than just dashing around the shops in the closest tourist site trying to find something that works for everyone. Oh, and if you’re not going to make it home for Christmas but want to send home presents anyway, remember to calculate mailing time or they may end up getting their gifts for Easter instead.


Alie at the Confusious Temple in Nanjing, where three years later I would be shopping for all my Christmas gifts to bring home.

This year I will be doing the traditional family Christmas–in all it’s noisy and chaotic splendor. But who knows what next year will bring and where I’ll be this time next year. But it doesn’t really matter, because Christmas is about the people, not the trappings. Those are the memories we keep long after the leftovers are finished and the decorations go back in the box, no matter where in the world we happen to be.