Christmas Abroad: How to Make the Best of It

As more and more Christmas decorations are appearing in Shanghai streets, stores, and restaurants, ASI Movers has decided to anticipate a bit of the festive season and explore what it means for an expat to celebrate Christmas abroad, more precisely in China. What are the challenges? What are the pros? How to make the most of this season even though one is likely far from many family members? How to recreate the cheerful atmosphere we enjoy at home?

Here are the answers!

Christmas Abroad: How To Make the Best of It?

The festive season, especially Christmas, is a friends & family moment. You gather around good food and dive into the warm atmosphere coming with the end of the year and its traditions.

However, when you live miles away from friends and family who stayed home (and it might be the first time for you to be away from them) the celebrations can be a bit bitter.

Moreover, you might have ended up in a country where the traditions are way different from the ones you are used to and which comfort you (if there even are any!).

How then overcome the spleen that can arise from such a situation, and make the most of living the festive season abroad?

  • Call your close ones back home but avoid drowning into nostalgia. It is important to schedule phone calls and Skype sessions with your friends and family back home. It is essential to feel that you are part of the events that are happening there, see the people you haven’t seen in a while, and get some of the atmosphere you are missing in your location flowing through your phone or computer screen. However, do not let yourself be completely absorbed by nostalgia, that’s our next point.
  • Live the foreign experience. Take advantage of being in a foreign environment to explore what celebrating Christmas is there, even if the actual celebrations are very few. In most cities in the world, there is a Christmas market where you can not only feel the original atmosphere of the season but also where you can experience different culture’s ways of celebrating the end of the year.
  • Gather with the foreign community. Chances are you are not the only expat in the city you live in, not even in the neighborhood. Many local expats associations and organizations offer you the opportunity to celebrate with other people like you, who might go through the same hardships. Social media groups (Facebook, and WeChat) are also a great way to connect with people.
  • Try to incorporate new rituals with each destination you relocate to. If you have been or are likely to experience living in several places throughout your life try collecting Christmas traditions the same way you do with objects. It is a great way to remember your past experiences but also explore and thus get more familiar with the place you now live in.

Celebrating Christmas in China

Harbin (see picture above) hosts an Ice and Snow Festival that lasts 2 months (Dec. 20th - Feb. 28th) and which great opening is scheduled on Jan. 5. It features an impressive ice sculpture (the most famous attraction of the city), fireworks, ice lanterns, winter swimming, fishing, skiing, sledding, and more related activities. From Dec. 24th to 30th, you can enjoy a 50% discount to access the ice sculpture exhibition as it is still in the trial period (90% of the snow craving is finished). Even though Christmas and New Year's Eve are less popular in China than in the West, the city is decorated accordingly.

Only 1% of Chinese people are Christian and thus is traditionally celebrating Christmas. This community is very active in preparing for Jesus’ birth, which counterbalances the fact that most of the remaining population do not know the meaning of the event. There is no public holiday during this period and people work on December 25th.

However, as with many other things coming from the West, Santa Claus made his way in the Middle Kingdom.
He even has a Chinese name: Shen Dan Lao Ren (圣诞老人) Old Christmas Man. In big cities, Christmas trees, decorations, and markets are blooming, in rural areas it remains uncommon.
Giving apples on Christmas Eve is becoming more and more popular as the latter's translation - Ping'an Ye (平安夜), literally peaceful evening - sounds like píngguǒ (苹果), apple.

Another take-off from the West is family and friends gatherings at someone’s house, cafes, KTVs, etc. Family reunions cannot be compared to the big family reunions we are used to in the West but the tradition is slowly making its way in China. Young couples associate Christmas with a romantic event, exchange gifts, and date.

Celebrating Christmas in Shanghai

  • Shanghai being the vivid city it is, with many malls, fancy shops, and restaurants, as well as a place where the West meets the East, Christmas is visible in the streets (light garlands, Christmas trees, etc.), and the occasion for shopping opportunities. Open hours are extended during the period in many shops, and Christmas sales are held (Nov. and early Dec.).
  • Several Christmas markets are organized around the city, selling Christmas products & gifts, food, and drinks. Search Paulaner's Christkindlmarkt, Jing'an Christkindlmarkt, and Jiashan Market for more information.
  • If you are Christian, check local churches for Christmas mass, many of them even hold English religious services.
  • Book a table in an international hotel or restaurant to enjoy a great Christmas dinner, or gather with friends in a bar for a more festive atmosphere surrounded by fellow expats.
  • If you prefer to stay at home, e-markets and stores dedicated to expats will provide you with the ingredients necessary to reproduce the traditional dishes you crave during this period.

Even though far from being the major event it is in the West, Christmas is gaining popularity in China. Some elements have been adapted to local tastes and sensibility, while others will give you the occasion to experience an atmosphere reminiscent of home. Go around the city, enjoy the decorations, taste good food in one of the Christmas markets, and gather with friends for nice dinners and drinks, that's the Christmas recipe!

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