Although Christmas in China may have felt like any other time of year 30 years ago, the festive bug has caught on. Seasoned expats will have seen the yearly spread of trees and tinsel in the streets, shops, and windows of Beijing. Nonetheless, this is the time when many still need to create their home away from home in the capital.
beijingkids spoke with four very different families about how they keep their festive traditions alive away from their homelands. Whether reconciling their Christmas (or Hanukkah) festivities with their new surroundings, or accommodating their own diverse backgrounds, these families all find their own ways to recreate the customs of their youth and keep their own children in touch with their roots.
The Wramner-Wang Family
Swedish Marketing Director Sara Wramner has been in China since 1995. She lives with her husband Wang Shouhua (not pictured), a Beijing-born project manager. Their daughter, 4-year-old Emma Wramner-Wang, was born in the capital, though this year will be her first Christmas in China.
How will your celebrations in China be different compared to at home?
First of all, we will miss the rest of my Swedish family – my parents, my siblings and their kids. Second, there will most likely be no snow here, so this means that we cannot go out skiing and playing in the snow after all the food.
You and your husband have very different backgrounds. How has he adapted to your traditions?
Well, since my hubby is a Beijing ren, he didn’t really celebrate Christmas before meeting me. Now he is a pro at wrapping presents and making glögg, a [Swedish] red wine drink with raisins and almonds similar to German gluwein.
How will you celebrate Christmas?
We actually celebrate Christmas the Swedish way on December 24 with friends. This is when Father Christmas will come and deliver presents to everyone who has been kind throughout the year. We will also watch the same cartoons that every Swede watches on Christmas Eve (December 24). Then on December 25, we will have our Chinese family over for a Christmas dinner and possibly a dance around the tree.
Are there any other rituals or traditions that you partake in every year?
First of all, we will all try to dress in something red. We will also finish off the day by eating rice porridge in which there is a hidden almond. The one who gets the almond is granted a wish. And of course there’s the drinking of glögg.
“We will have a plastic Christmas tree, lots of candles, and some other ornaments. Emma is helping us decorate the tree, as well as making her own Christmas decorations.”
“We will talk a little bit about different religions but the decision, if any, is for Emma to make when she grows up. Having said that, we still attend services in Sweden as well as China.”
“Santa comes after the cartoons at around 4.10pm. He will enter with a sack of gifts and ask if there are any ‘nice and kind’ children before distributing the presents.”
“It will be a fusion between East and West. We will also be making our own Swedish-style meatballs, baby sausages, Swedish baked goods and cheese.”
The Valdez Family
HR professional Renee Valdez and her computer engineer husband Joseph relocated from the Philippines to Beijing in January this year, along with their kids JV (age 18), a university freshman, and Nikka (16), Jio (13), and Thea (10), who all attend the British School of Beijing. Although they will be returning home for Christmas day, the Valdez family will still been getting into the festive spirit before leaving Beijing.
How will you get in a festive mood in the build-up to Christmas?
Here in Beijing, the Filipino community, especially those of us working for the same company [Nestlé], are quite close. We organize celebrations in one of our houses, do potlucks and have games for both adults and children.
Are there any other rituals or traditions that you do every year?
We usually start decorating our house the weekend after All Saints’ Day [November 1]. To instill the concept of sharing, we used to bring the children to orphanages to share gifts and participate in games with the orphans when they were younger. In the last few years we haven’t had the opportunity to do this, so we keep candies or biscuits in our cars to give to street children instead.
Is there anything about Christmas in the Philippines that our readers may not be familiar with?
The Christmas season in the Philippines can start as early as September, when Christmas songs can be heard on the radio or in malls. Some people even start their Christmas shopping then to avoid the holiday rush.
We attend mass for nine straight days, with the tenth day falling on Christmas Eve. The mass is usually held at 4 or 5am, and there are food stalls outside the church selling traditional rice cakes and hot chocolate afterwards.
Other traditions include the giving of aguinaldo [a gift of coins or money]to our godchildren, and one of our native provinces – Pampanga – is known for holding a yearly lantern parade.
“We could not find our usual huge star lantern in Beijing, so we settled for just a Christmas tree. Back home, we have the house outlined with lights but this year we will have a simpler [display].”
“Since we are Catholics, this is the time to reflect how Christ’s birth impacted our faith. We also try to emphasize the concept of sharing our blessings with others who are less fortunate, as it’s not just about receiving presents.”
“We usually let the children open their presents on the morning of Christmas Day. Although our children now know who Santa is, we still have stockings and they can put their ‘requests’ inside.”
The most popular dish during Christmas is lechon [suckling pig]. This is usually the centerpiece of the menu, along with Chinese noodles or pasta, vegetable spring rolls, and the kids’ favorite – lengua estofado [Fillipino-style ox tongue].
The Garcia-Saevarsson Family
Cuban-born Beatriz Garcia, who recently opened a capoeira studio near Gongti, will be spending her third Christmas in Beijing with her Icelandic husband, Haflidi Saevarsson, and their son, Ymir Haflidason Garcia, who turns 5 this month.
You and your husband have very different backgrounds. How do you celebrate Christmas differently?
In Cuba, Christmas is not an official holiday and its celebration was suppressed for years. For over a decade now, people have slowly begun reviving it by buying plastic Christmas trees and setting up decorations. But I actually grew up in Ecuador, where I celebrated Christmas with my family Ecuadorian-style. My husband comes from Iceland, where his family celebrates in a more traditional way.
My husband is big on upholding traditions; they are all very dear to him. I, on the other hand, place much less emphasis on them and could very well do without.
How do you accommodate both of your approaches to Christmas?
I support [Haflidi]’s efforts to make Christmas special for my son, and I am happy to follow the Icelandic tradition.
There are similarities between both traditions though. Both in Ecuador and Iceland, Christmas is celebrated on December 24 with a family get-together and a big dinner.
In Ecuador we roast a turkey, while in Iceland they traditionally eat roasted pork. In China, we tend to prepare an assortment of meals and meats.
Also, presents are usually exchanged after dinner in both countries. The family sits together and each person takes turns |opening a gift, with any cards attached to them read out loud.
Is there anything about Christmas in either of your countries that may differ from what our readers will be familiar with?
In Iceland, most families visit the cemetery to pay their respects to deceased relatives. On December 23, many families have dinner in which the delicacy skata [preserved ray]is served, although we don’t do either of these activities in Beijing.
“We have a few statues, stuffed animals and Santa Clauses. My husband usually tries to make some homemade decorations such as small Christmas trees or figurines.”
“Religion does not play a role in our family celebrations and we do not attend services. We have not as of yet taught our son the story behind Christmas.”
“In Iceland they have 13 Santa Clauses or ‘Yule Lads’ who visit children 13 days before Christmas, one each evening. My son places a shoe on the windowsill and impatiently waits for morning to collect Santa’s little gift.”
“According to Icelandic tradition, we‘ll have smoked salmon as an appetizer served with toast, butter, and mustard-dill dressing. We’ll follow this with smoked pork and, for dessert, caramelized pears with vanilla ice cream or a Cuban favorite, flan.”
The Rubenstein-Liu Family
This year marks the 17th consecutive Hanukkah in Beijing for Canadian-born Joseph Rubenstein, co-founder of technology firm UMBRA Technologies. He has spent each one with with his wife Kane Liu (not pictured), general manager at a dental and medical products company. Their two sons, 13-year-old David and 11-year-old Michael, have also been in the capital for each of their Hanukkah celebrations, which fall in either November or December every year.
How will your celebrations here differ from when you were at home?
Before coming to China, I only celebrated Hanukkah with my family when I was a kid. As a young adult, I did not do it on my own but would visit either [side of the]family and join their celebrations – or skip them altogether. [Now] with a family of my own, doing it at home has become a cherished tradition; [so has]joining the parties in Beijing’s Jewish community.
You and your wife have very different backgrounds. How did you accommodate both of your traditions?
We respect each other. Kane decided to not convert to Judaism but has been supportive of my observance and of our sons’ decision to independently convert to Judaism. She knows a lot about Jewish culture and also cooks our favorite matzo ball soup (the best anywhere). At the same time, we accompany her to Buddhist temples and, while we don’t bow down and pray to the statues, we support her as well.
Will you be having any friends, families or others around to your house over Hanukkah?
It is an eight-day holiday so there will always be friends that casually drop by. As the boys get older, it is usually their buddies or my business partners, friends, and their families. We make a dinner of it. I love to cook, so it is a doubly festive event.
Are there any other rituals or traditions that you do every year at this time?
We light a menorah [a traditional nine-branched candelabrum]. We start with one candle on the first night and then add a candle each night. This is to commemorate a time when the Jews found oil in a destroyed temple. There was only enough to burn for one night but ended up lasting for eight.
“A menorah in the window is all that is required. The lit candles bring light to the world. If we go up to our cottage in Miyun for a weekend during Hanukkah, we bring the menorah with us and light them there.
“The Jewish religion is important to my boys and I. There are generally a few community celebrations that we attend, so on the first or second night we may join the community for [an event], then on the other nights we will do the candle lighting at home.”
“Presents are generally given on each night of Hanukkah: chocolate coins, small toys, video games, books, and so on. Again, the best gift that I can give my family is to fill them with awesome food and lots of love.”
“Hanukkah was in November [this year]so we’ve already done a turkey dinner. I often cook my late Bubbie [grandmother]Birdie’s spaghetti, which helped us win CCTV’s Dragon Boat Festival cooking competition in 2009. We also do homemade latkes [potato pancakes]with apple sauce.”
photos by Sui, VIVAXIAO PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO, LITTLE ONES KIDS & FAMILY PORTRAIT STUDIO, KEN
This article originally appeared on p56-61 of the beijingkids December 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com