For both of us, this was our first ever Christmas out of New Zealand. It has been a mixture of weird and familiar best described by four Christmases in two countries.
1. Invisible Christmas
Most of Chengdu ignores Christmas, as it should. It is not part of China’s rich, sophisticated 5,000 year history from which they have plenty of special celebrations of their own. So our weekend market, local shops, hairdresser, and my office did nothing.
Although, our hairdresser inadvertently gave us a Christmas gift. When we visited just before we left for Germany, they had added a NZ flag to the wall of flags which contributes to their funky decor. Each time we go there, we significantly increase the average age in the room, but I chose them because I thought a young, funky salon would bring experience of using non-black dye. You can see that my local hairdresser is young, petite, beautiful and uses dye herself.
2. Incongruous Christmas
Then Chengdu has pockets of Christmasness – each to me seeming a little out of place in its wider surroundings. Early December, large, flash shopping malls and hotels put up enormous Christmas trees or present making scenes from the north pole, often quite zany.
Then, just before we left, on 14 December (I assume because of the 12 days of Christmas), at my office and our apartment, Christmas decorations sprung up. Santa with parasol in our own front yard won our ‘sums up Christmas in China’ prize.
Leman, Raymond’s school takes Christmas seriously, with a major music production with modern Christmas songs. I have struggled over the years, as New Zealand has moved from Christmas carols, which were meaningful to me, even though I know many don’t believe in them, to songs about Santa and reindeer that we are all sure are not true, and snow, holly, mistletoe etc which are not part of a kiwi experience. So, when I relieved for the music teacher and spent a day watching groups of five to eight year olds of mainly Asian descent playing, singing, and dancing to, these songs, I found it incredibly cute with a level of discomfort. What does this mean to these young sponges? Is this the most important part of Western culture to pass on? Was this what their parents hoped for in sending them to the school?
And the last bit of incongruity – as I said goodbye at the office, a young Chinese colleague, whose English level is similar to my Chinese, turned, with a big smile on his face, saying, in that deliberate ‘I have worked this out ahead of time’ way that I now recognise, ‘Merry Christmas’. I was surprised and touched, which shows I strongly identify with some Christmas stuff.
3. Magic Christmas
Then, a week before Christmas, Raymond and I flew to Germany. As many kiwis before us have discovered, we found that Christmas in Europe is magic. Cold iciness, early dark, lights everywhere, manger scenes, Christmas markets, mulled wine, and did I say lights everywhere?
And I like that Germany is more about stars, candles, trees and the occasional manger scene, than Santa, elves, reindeer and presents/things. This is a mixture of identifying more with the Christmas imagery that I grew up with, preferring the Christian Christmas message of a Creator’s selfless love in taking on human form to save the world, and reacting to a growing emphasis on Santa et al in New Zealand (which in my mind at worst links to rampant materialism and US colonialism (you may ask why that is worse than earlier British or European colonialism) and at best links to a schmaltzy message to which I don’t relate).
4. Meaningful Christmas
As it does in other parts of my life, our life in China and cross-cultural experience raises the question ‘what does Christmas mean for me?’
My answer is family, love, the beach.
Family, because as a kiwi, Christmas has always been about family time, on the day itself, followed by a long summer holiday together. Over time ‘family’ has changed, starting with my parents and siblings, broadening to include Raymond’s family, growing as we added each of our children, extending as our siblings added partners and children, and most recently increasing as our children choose partners. (And now, just after this Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of our first grandchild which will change it again.)
Love, because as a child I felt particularly loved receiving gifts, in the wider family context on Christmas day, and during our annual beach holiday afterwards. Then, as a teen, when I embraced the Christian message, I found Christmas a time to understand God’s love. Now I blend these two loves at Christmas, and focus on giving more than receiving through the gift-giving process.
Beach. I was surprised to realise this, but when I asked myself what Christmas means to me, the image of a pohutukawa in full bloom with sand and blue sparkling water behind kept popping into my head. This is a consequence of more than 50 years of beach holidays immediately after Christmas. I like the growing trend for kiwis to create Christmas cards and songs that reflect our Christmas reality, such as this year’s Summer Wonderland song.
It was very special, after nearly six months of separation, on Christmas Eve, a day later than planned thanks to aeroplane engine troubles, to have the London-based half of our family join us in Munich. And Christmas morning, we skyped the other half of our family as they finished their Christmas days in Wellington and Blenheim.
We had the Christmas Eve ham dinner I have had ever since I can remember (although I don’t soak the ham for days in the laundry sink like mum did). We did usual things like watching Christmas movies (including a santaish one because our children are a different generation), opening presents and cooking a roast meal, and the unusual thing of popping into Munich city centre for a quick look around – the kids’ only chance given flight delays.
And, Raymond and I continue to be grateful that our children love us enough to want to holiday with us, including organising most of it and insisting on spkitting costs evenly, make time to skype us, and give us thoughtful presents.
Being exposed to these different Christmases has caused me to reflect on Christmas in a way that I have never done before. In the process, I have discovered I have firmer views than I realised I had, felt more kiwi than I usually do, presumably because of tapping into more than 50 years of positive memories, and understood a bit of how Christmas is evolving across countries and generations.
I will be interested to see what I think in a year’s time and what we all think in 30 years, when our new granddaughter is her dad’s age (any excuse to share a picture).