When I had to pass a Christmas in Taiwan, I was both excited and anxious. Sure, I would miss the traditional American experience of snow, no school for two weeks, and the long-awaited family gatherings. But there is something to be said about celebrating a holiday in a different setting to make you truly appreciate it.
Do people in Taiwan celebrate Christmas?
You’d be surprised how prolific Christmas can be among non-Christian populations. I remember walking the busy streets around Sogo–a gleaming shopping mall in Zhongli–and being surprised at the amount of lights and garland decorating the shops. We smiled at the dressed-up Santa with black hair under his white wig. There was a huge Christmas tree in front of the movie theater, and genuine Christmas music wafted from the open doors. Taiwan had the commercialism of Christmas down. I think the businesses there embraced the holiday because it was an excuse for sales and spending.
Young English students embraced the holiday as a novelty. It was something to break up the monotony of learning English grammar and the like. My husband, who at the time taught English to a class of 8 and 9 year-olds, taught the kids to sing, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” for a school program. He thought it more fun to learn than the tried but rusty Christmas classics, but it turned into a mumble-jumble of words that confused both Chinese and English speakers. Also, the subtle humor in the lyrics like, “incriminating Claus marks on her back” were lost on the kids. In our fervor to share holiday traditions with them, it didn’t land the way we thought it would because (of course) they had a different background and life experience. We ended up feeling hollow and homesick.
To combat the homesickness around Christmas, we sought after everything that was familiar to us. Mostly that meant frequenting every American restaurant we could, whether the food was good or not. Our favorite place was the Pizza Hut buffet. Most buffets in Taiwan had two-hour time limits–we made sure to stay till the last minute. We traveled an hour by train to buy Krispee Kreme Doughnuts from Taipei. We spent a ridiculous amount of money to eat one scoop of Haagen Dazs ice cream at the mall. All this to try to muster up the same feeling we would have in America. But we didn’t need American food. We needed family. Or at least American people who had a relatable cultural past.
On Christmas Day, people still woke up at the crack of dawn and joined the lines of scooters to commute to work. Kids, wearing their school uniforms, still shuffled onto buses. The make-shift marketplace downstairs still sold its fruit. The world was supposed to stop revolving for a moment, but it didn’t. When I’d tell our neighbors, “Merry Christmas,” they’d stop a moment and laugh, “oh yes, that’s today?” So while the shops and schools in Taiwan showed outer manifestations of the holiday spirit, when it came down it it, it was just another day. Without the enormity of the holiday in the hearts of the people, we felt lonely–it was like spending your birthday in a room where no one knows your name.
Not to say that Chinese people SHOULD celebrate Christmas with the same vigor they celebrate Chinese New Year. It’s just an observation that what makes a holiday a holiday depends so much on the people around you.
In the end, my husband and I worked hard to celebrate our Christmas. My husband asked for the Christmas day off. We slaved half the day making his mom’s famous sugar cookies – baking them in our tiny toaster oven by our TV. I handmade some decorations out of paper. We Skyped family. At the end of the night, we watched a broadcast of fireworks off of Taiwan’s tallest building. It was a simple celebration, but I liked it because it was very intentional. Christmas didn’t happen to us, we made it happen. So while it was hard to not have a traditional Christmas in Taiwan, it was a memorable experience.
Celebrating Chinese Holidays in America
Now that I’m living in the U.S., I try to celebrate Chinese holidays. Even though my efforts produce a shadow of what the holiday would really feel like in Taiwan, I still like to do it because holidays make up so much of culture and a person’s experience. My kids can learn so much through these simple celebrations–but! There is another reason. There may be someone from Taiwan or China living close to me that may be feeling “holiday homesickness.” How meaningful it is to them to have someone else remember the special day too.