I was a late bloomer when it came to celebrating Christmas. At my Catholic kindergarten in Taiwan, we had too much fun singing and dressing as angels to think there was anything religious about the occasion. After my family moved to the US, we adopted the holiday in its barest form: gifts and a big meal. It wasn’t until I started trekking down to West Virginia for holidays with my boyfriend’s family – now my in-laws – that I grew attached to the traditions of Christmas.
The first time I spent the holidays in Ed’s hometown, a college town perched on an Appalachian hill, I was so excited about the prospect of an authentic country Christmas that I insisted on getting a real Christmas tree – even though there was already a plastic tree in the attic that had been in use every year since Ed’s childhood. I reasoned that it would be more like Christmas with an evergreen that we chopped down with our own hands.
Ed and I had arrived in West Virginia the day before Christmas, but his family was happy to indulge me. Four or us – me, Ed, his brother and their father – piled into a station wagon and drove on a small road until we reached a tree farm where there were no customers around, just a good-natured owner, his dog and a field of pines. We stomped through the snowy rows of trees, lifting branches and debating which would make the best living room centerpiece. Finally, shivering and our fingers numb with cold, we settled on a seven-footer that was thick with needles but still small enough to tie to the top of the car. Soon we were taking turns sawing the trunk, marveling at the sturdiness of the tree.
I came to West Virginia with the idea that the accoutrements – a real tree, stockings over a fireplace, homemade pies – distinguished Christmas as a holiday. I did get my real tree with a silver star on top, but more importantly, I’ll always remember my first holiday with my in-laws because they cared enough to venture out on Christmas Eve for a tree that I thought mattered. The truth is that Christmas is special because of the spirit of generosity that it inspires in all of us.
This year’s Christmas, my first in Beijing, won’t involve a house of relatives, but it will be full of new friends. And new traditions, like riding an ice-unicycle on Houhai Lake. And some old traditions, like getting a real tree.