The winter months in Beijing have a special appeal. Invigorating temperatures that spawn new dance crazes at bus stops, wistfully silver-tinged coal-scented air and the oh-so-delightful arctic gusts and blasts that remind you of why you would rather spend the season in Beijing than anywhere else. For those rare few who dare to yearn for home at this time, Beijing can still surface a few comforts. Especially in the expatriate crowd, there is quite a selection of celebrations going on. We’ve recently caught up with a few waywardly festive families to learn a bit more about how they make the winter holiday season extra special.
The Palestrant-Rothschild Family – Hanukkah
The Palestrant-Rothschild family has been living in China on and off for many years. Their current assignment began four years ago, bringing the family here from a prior posting in Chicago. Stacy has been through three different rotations here, and Tomar is on his fifth. For the most part, daughters Shiraz, age 5, and Meital, age 2, are true Beijingers despite their American passports.
How will you celebrate the upcoming winter holiday season?
We will light Hanukkah candles at home with our girls and also at the Bet Yaakov Chabad House together with other Jewish families. Also, as a family, we will spin the dreidel (a spinning top), and sing traditional songs. We will probably also participate in a Skype-enabled menorah lighting with our families in the US. A menorah is a special seven-branched candle holder, and we light one candle for each day of the celebration. We have brought our own menorah from back home in the US, but we get Hanukkah candles through the Beijing Jewish community.
Are there any special foods, drinks and customs you enjoy?
We particularly like to eat potato latkes, which are sort of like fried hash browns, and also sufganiyot (fried jelly donuts). And since the oil-drenched starchy latkes are not bad enough, we pair them with either sweet apple sauce or rich sour cream. Mmm, delicious. The best sufganiyot are covered in powdered sugar. Hanukkah can be a
challenging holiday for the health conscious, to say the least.
How do the kids like to participate in the Hanukkah celebration?
We like to play Hanukkah music at home a few weeks before the holiday in order to get geared up to sing all the traditional songs each night. Our eldest daughter, Shiraz, will also practice the songs at her school Ganeinu, which is Beijing’s only Jewish school. For decorations, Shiraz will also be doing art projects with Hanukkah themes that we can put around our house. For each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the kids love spinning the dreidel and receiving gifts. You can imagine how exciting (and dangerous) eight burning candles are to a 5-year-old.
Are there any special activities around Beijing in which you participate as part of your celebration during this season?
Many families host Hanukkah parties in their homes, where we all recite special prayers over the lighting of candles. One of the most fun parts of Hanukkah in Beijing is getting together with the Jewish community to light a large menorah outside at different locations. Since Hanukkah falls in December this year, we usually all freeze as we wait to light the menorah. I think of it as “religious revelation through frostbite.” Top locations for lighting the menorah in past years have included the Great Wall, the Bird’s Nest and Tian’anmen Square. Some speculate that this year the menorah will be lit in Houhai or Nanluogu Xiang. Once that happens then all the local copycat bars will probably start selling menorahs!
For Hannukah, Jewish families can find everything they need at Bet Yaakov Chabad House. The Central Chabad House directly sells many products from the US-based store Judaica, which sells Hanukkah dreidels, menorahs, candles, textiles, cookie cutters, and more.
Bet Yaakov Chabad House
Fangyuan Xilu (next to south gate of Si’de Park), Chaoyang District (8470 8238 ext 200, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.chabadbeijing.com
The Kubo Family – Christmas
The Kubo family hails from the United States and includes Christine, Eddie and their 7-year-old son Andrew. They have lived in Beijing since February 2010, having relocated here from Chicago, Illinois for Eddie’s work.
How do you plan to celebrate the upcoming winter holiday season?
We will be celebrating the holiday season in Beijing and in Chicago, Illinois. First, we will celebrate Christmas in Beijing with a small Christmas dinner at home with just our family and opening a few gifts before Christmas day. Then, we will celebrate Christmas day in the US with friends and family and lots of great home cooking. Eddie has enjoyed bringing the holiday spirit to his office here as well.
What special decorations do you put out for the holidays?
Decorating for Christmas is a big deal for our family, so both our home and Eddie’s office get a sprucing up. We put up a Christmas tree with lots of lights and ornaments from all over the world. We were able to find many Christmas decorations at Ikea, Sam’s Club and Laitai Flower Market in Beijing. Eddie sets up a Christmas tree in his lobby, with gifts for the office staff under it and Christmas-themed items in shared spaces, and candy canes and chocolates in bowls around the office.
Can you describe any special foods, drinks and customs you enjoy as part of this holiday?
Since Thanksgiving and Christmas are only one month apart, we get to enjoy lots of festivities all together, including seeing family and friends, enjoying great food and lots of Christmas shopping. In the US, we would usually have Thanksgiving dinner at home with just the family: eating turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, green beans and much more. In Beijing, we go out to a restaurant for turkey dinner with our family instead. It is so much work to find all the needed ingredients here! We traditionally eat a honey-baked ham, tons of side dishes and drink Bailey’s Irish cream for dessert. Also, a must is watching American football!
What role does your son play in preparing for Christmas?
Andrew is 7, so he is still very much into helping to decorate the Christmas tree, wrap Christmas presents and helping bake Christmas cookies. He also helps pick out and wrap toys to donate to children in need, which is one of our family traditions. We do a lot of our shopping at the many holiday bazaars around Beijing, which is a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and buy unique gifts for family and friends.
Have you changed your celebration customs since you have lived in Beijing?
The holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas in the US is very lively and festive, with lots of celebrating, eating and drinking with friends and family. There are also many holiday decorations everywhere. In Beijing we still enjoy the holiday season with friends and family, but it is just much quieter and not nearly as festive.
The Wilding Family – Christmas
The Wilding Family brings an interesting mix of British and Peruvian flair to their holiday festivities. Catherine Loza de Wilding was born in Peru, and Gilbert Wilding hails from England. Both Valeria Rose (6) and Miranda Kyra (3) were born in the UK. Catherine and Gilbert met here in Beijing in 2001, worked in several cities in China until 2005 when they moved to Peru, and then a few years later to the UK. They returned to Beijing last summer, taking up teaching posts.
How do you plan to celebrate in the upcoming winter holiday season?
Our extended family is coming from the UK this year, so we will be visiting lots of tourist places in Beijing and going shopping together for gifts for everyone. We are already getting ready by putting up a Christmas tree, which is always a must for us at home. The girls love decorating it. We also like lights, streamers and stockings. Beijing is full of wonderful places to purchase decorations but we like Nuren Jie (Ladies Street) off Liangmaqiao Lu.
Can you describe any special foods, drinks and customs you enjoy as part of this holiday?
On the 24th, we usually have a Peruvian Christmas dinner which includes roasted chicken with vegetables followed by hot chocolate and Pannetone (Italian bread). Afterward, the girls leave a glass of milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. On 25th, we have a British dinner, which includes roasted turkey, vegetables, Christmas pudding and mince pies. After our dinner, we open gifts, which is always a big celebration and lots of laughs. It is also the time of year for cheesy party games, like charades and Who-Am-I guessing games.
What role do the kids play in preparing for Christmas?
The girls absolutely love Christmas. In early December, both of them start drawing and painting Christmas pictures that we hang up on the walls or windows. Valeria loves arts and crafts, so she makes sure we have got extra decorations for the tree made by her. In Peru, we really emphasize the birth of Jesus and so we always have a nativity scene on display in our home.
Have you changed your celebration customs in any ways since you have lived in Beijing?
We have had to change our meal customs a little, as we cannot find all of the kinds of food that we would have at home. Also, since family is such an important part of the holiday, it is difficult to replicate.
We have been delighted at how creative Santa has become as more and more celebrators of Christmas move to Beijing. We understand from other families here that he uses a unique way of entering apartments here that do not have a chimney. He apparently has several magical ways to get in, such as through keyholes and through the air-conditioning system. The girls have both suggested that we might not want to leave so many biscuits for him this time.