The expat population in Beijing continues to grow year after year, and with that comes the integration of many different cultures, holidays and customs. It can be difficult to replicate country-specific celebrations precisely, but families do find ways to keep their traditions alive at home. After all, the holidays – no matter what your religion or culture – are to be celebrated as you see fit for your family, and that special feeling can occur no matter where you live.
The Vavala Family – Italy
Roberto, his wife Emanuela, and their sons Mickey (13) and Tommy (11)
Emanuela (Manu) gets excited talking about Christmas, as it’s the anticipation of spending time in Italy with the extended family that makes the holidays so special. Having lived in Beijing for seven years, their family has experienced many holidays and celebrations the Chinese way. But for the Vavalas, going home for Christmas is their most treasured gift.
How will your family spend Christmas this year?
Every year, our family goes to Italy to celebrate with our family members, about 20 of us in total. We really enjoy Christmas, because it is one of the only times in which our whole family
comes together as one. We usually gather in the living room of our cousin’s house, play games and open presents. The whole point of these activities is for the family to be together.
What family or country traditions do you try to keep in your celebrations?
We celebrate many things, such as encouraging the children to believe in Santa Claus. He comes down the chimney, brings his enormous bag of presents, and puts them under the tree. The Christmas season continues through Epiphany, a festival we observe on January 6 to celebrate the Re Magi (the wise men who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh). And we also believe in La Befana, which is an Italian name, usually occurring during the Epiphany. A witch flies with her broom around the world, dropping socks filled with candy into people’s houses. Once the kids wake up, they just grab their sock [filled with treats]from where it is hung.
What special foods or decorations do you typically have during the holidays?
On Christmas Eve, we have a huge family gathering with a big dinner. Appetizers include a lot of ham, cheese, bread, and salmon. Then we move on to the pasta – a ton of spaghetti for everyone! A lot of fish (salmon) and meat come next. We eat and eat and eat … then dessert! Christmas bread with sugar is called Pandoro, which many children adore. It’s something we enjoy only once a year, so we have a lot of it.
For decorations, as a family we make something called the presepe, or the Italian nativity scene. Since we believe in God, we have the presepe, which consists of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the animals. We decorate the house with baby Jesus and the entire presepe, because of our belief that He was born on Christmas. Another decoration is the Christmas tree! We hang little shiny balls onto the tree and once we have enough, [a young child puts the Christmas star on the top of the tree]. Then, we turn off the lights and everything is shiny. In Beijing, we find many items, like trees and shiny ball ornaments, at Liangma Flower Market and Beidong Floriculture Garden (see p53 for details).
Do you have any special gifts that you like to give at this time?
Since we live very far away and we don’t have many opportunities to see each other, we usually collect pictures taken in China or Asia during the year and give those as gifts.
What do you look forward to each Christmas?
It has become a family tradition to spend Christmas in Italy with our family, so we are just waiting for the time to fly for our huge family gathering. Meanwhile, our family will wait with open arms for us to come back. We can’t wait until this [upcoming]family gathering!
The Zachrisson-Nording Family – Sweden
Nicklas, his wife Synnöve, and their kids Samuel (11), Isaac (6), and Annie (3)
Synnöve (Synne) and her children are used to the fact that Nicklas (not pictured) travels throughout much of the year. The kids are involved in as much of the preparations as possible, and they all eagerly anticipate dad’s return for Christmas!
How does your family celebrate the holidays while living in Beijing?
As much as possible, the celebration is pretty much the same. Last year, we went to Sweden for Christmas but celebrated quite a lot in advance [in Beijing]. You get quite patriotic when you live abroad. We try to keep up the Swedish traditions – with a bit of Chinese influence, of course! This year we will go to the Philippines, but we will celebrate [in Beijing too]around December 20.
How is Christmas celebrated in Sweden?
In Sweden, we celebrate on December 24. In our family, we eat sweet rice pudding with cinnamon, and knäckebröd (rye bread) with Christmas ham and sweet mustard for breakfast. We always go to church after lunch, where they have family service especially for kids. Kids can build the Christmas crèche and hear about the birth of Jesus. At 3pm, a compulsory activity in many Swedish homes takes place: Disney plays on TV! This has been a tradition for many, many years. The traditional Swedish smorgasbord follows, and after that, the father of the house remembers that he has forgotten to buy the newspaper – shortly after, Santa Claus arrives! The distributing of gifts normally takes a long time, and a lot of homemade candy is being eaten during that time.
What traditions are important for you to continue as a family?
We start at the beginning of December with advent calendars. I bought one for each child [from Beidong Floriculture Garden]last year with small pockets to put candy or gifts in. In Sweden, there is also the “Christmas Calendar” show on TV every day that’s important to the kids. It’s possible to download it from the Internet, so last year we saw almost all of it. We also have the advent candleholder with four candles; we light one every Sunday until Christmas. The advent star in the window is also important to get the soon-it-will-be-Christmas feeling.
On December 13, we celebrate Lucia, a saint who died because of her faith. Today, it’s a mix of different traditions in the Lucia celebration, but it’s all over Sweden – in schools, children’s choirs, and on national TV. One girl is elected to be Lucia and she dresses up in a long white gown with a red ribbon around her waist and a lingonberry wreath with candles in her hair. Everybody shows up in early morning or late afternoon when it’s dark (Lucia comes in with the light) to sing special Lucia songs. December 13 is a hectic time for Swedish kids and their parents, since there are usually many Lucia shows to participate in at school, churches, concert halls, etc.
Describe decorations and foods that your family enjoys over the holiday.
We don’t over-decorate, but we do have red table runners, elves and gnomes in the windows, a lot of candles, and a lot of Christmas music. Food that is important to us includes Swedish meatballs, Jansson’s Temptation (a gratin with shredded potatoes, cream and anchovies), home-baked saffron rolls, and gingerbread cookies. We drink must, a carbonated soda the same color as Coke, but it has a very special taste. Since we only drink it for Christmas, it tastes [like]Christmas to Swedish kids. Another special drink that we start drinking in early December is glogg – a sweet, hot wine with Christmas spices, raisins and almonds. Where do we get everything? Ikea is a goldmine! You can find everything there; it’s just great.
The Applerot Family – Israel
Erez, his wife Danna, and their kids Rommie (7), Tomer (6), and Mika (19 months)
Having lived in Beijing for six years and anticipating a few more, Danna says that her family embraces Jewish holidays in Beijing. The kids speak fluent Hebrew, Mandarin, and English, and the family has a very active Jewish community here, so they are able to enjoy Hanukkah to the fullest extent with family and friends.
Where do you usually spend the holidays?
We usually go back to Israel during the summer, and we mostly stay in Beijing for Hanukkah, as it is only an eight-day celebration just before the school’s winter holiday. This year Hanukkah is from December 9 to 16. We [typically]celebrate with family and friends, lighting a candle on the menorah each night. We usually host one evening, and for a few years, we have hosted the Israeli congregation of about 80 people! Also, the Bet Yaakov Chabad House, Bite a Pitta, and Kehillat Beijing all organize evenings of lighting the candles on the menorah at least once during the holidays, so anyone can come and enjoy.
Besides lighting the menorah, what other traditions do you follow each night?
We make sufganiyot, which are fried donuts filled with jam and other fillings. We also make potato latkes, similar to hash browns. Fried foods represent the story of burning oil during Hanukkah, so it’s an important custom to observe (though very bad for your diet!). I just returned from a trip to Israel and brought back all sorts of Hanukkah things, like dreidels. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with one Hebrew letter on each side, meaning “A big miracle happened here.” Children use chocolate coins or other candy, spin the top, and see who wins the candy. The weekend before Hanukkah, we make paper ornaments, shaped like dreidels, menorahs, and candles to decorate the walls and windows.
Where do you buy all the decorations and foods you enjoy?
Having just come back from Israel, I did bring things back with me, but in Beijing everything you’d need – food, decorations, ornaments, menorahs, candles – can be found at the Bet Yaakov Chabad House and Bite a Pitta restaurant. It’s great!
Is there something special that you like to do as a family to make the holiday even more meaningful?
Every year, I go to the kids’ school to tell a story about Hanukkah – about how Jews wanted to purify the temple by burning oil in the temple’s menorah for eight days, but there was only enough oil for one day. Miraculously, there was enough oil in the can for all eight days. I show the ornaments, give them dreidels and gold chocolate coins, describe the games, and have them taste special foods. It gives them a chance to learn about another culture’s celebration, and our kids get to feel proud of their own culture.
For Hanukkah, 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. Bite a Pitta also has many Hanukkah treats available. On December 14, Kehillat Beijing will host a family-friendly Hanukkah Shabbat.
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 朝阳区芳园西路（四得公园南门旁）
Bite a Pitta
2/F, Tongli Studio, Sanlitun Houjie, Chaoyang District (6467 2961, email@example.com) 三里屯43号楼同里201
3/F, Capital Club Athletic Center, 6 Xinyuan Nan Lu, Chaoyang District (8486-2225, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.sinogogue.org 朝阳区新源南路6号 京城大厦旁边的京城俱乐部3层
This article is excerpted from beijingkids December 2012 issue. View it in PDF form here or contact email@example.com to find out where you can pick up your free copy.