Normally, Christmas is about family, cosy nights in front of a fire, homely food and plenty of mulled wine and minced pies. Spending the festive season in China this year without these has been strange to say the least. But, unusual doesn't have to mean unpleasant - I've had a great holiday, and one that I'll remember for a long time. Having celebrated both Christmas and New Year now, and spent some time recovering from all the food and parties, I want to reflect on how to spend a this time of year away from the comforts of home, so that if/ when I am abroad through December again, I can remember how to enjoy it regardless.

1. Don't be alone!

I'm really lucky to be here with Ed as we can always keep each other company. Even so, Christmas for two is a little lonely, so we spent lots of time with the other foreigners here. In the morning, our apartment was inundated with teachers as I cooked pancakes and stewed apples. At midday, thirteen of us went for the biggest Christmas lunch you ever seen. In the evening we played trivial pursuits together, and at night a group of us went out to a bar and club to dance until Boxing Day began in the UK (and McDonalds opened for breakfast...)!
Everyone puts on a jolly face for Christmas, so even if your best friends and family aren't within striking distance, you're bound to have a good laugh with whoever happens to be to hand! And any company is a good antidote to festive homesick feelings. 

2. Embrace local Christmas "traditions"

Christmas tat
China rarely does anything with style, and Christmas is no exception. Decorations are hideous and selotaped up everywhere! The International Studies building was filled with pink and lilac balloons and "Merry Christmas" spray painted onto walls in red and green. The office had plastic bells and a big picture of Father Christmas' head taped to the door, in clashing colours of course. Inside was a very sorry looking plastic Christmas tree festooned in shiny plastic bows and some gaudy lights. But, instead of focusing on the unattractive sum of these attempts to decorate, it's more important to look beyond at the effort to make us feel at home which the staff have made. They don't celebrate Christmas, but they took the time to (try and) make the place festive for us. 

A gift-wrapped apple
On the same note, even countries which don't celebrate Christmas tend to have Christmas "traditions". While they may not match our expectations - they may not drink mulled wine, may not know what a minced pie is, may call things by the wrong name (to quote the compare at the Christmas show here, "Merry Christmas Man", not Father Christmas or Santa), may not exchange gifts, or even have a holiday - they'll have come up with something. In China they give friends apples on Christmas Eve to keep them "safe and sound". I was a bit bemused at first, when my students began thrusting apples wrapped in pink crepe paper at me. However, it turns out that the word for Christmas Eve in Chinese is 平安夜 or Pingan Ye. An apple is 苹果 or pingguo. By Chinese logic, because ping and ping sound (even though they don't look) the same, it makes perfect sense to give out apples, clearly. 

3. Don't try to recreate Christmas at home

My Christmas 'tree' by the sofa
... but some things can be done anywhere in the world. 

I love cooking at Christmas, and while it's totally not feasible to cook a big British dinner on my one hotplate, it doesn't mean I can't do any cooking! My pancakes worked a treat and I even managed to convert the rice cooker/ vegetable steamer into an apple stewer! 

I love Christmas trees but there's no way I could have got a real tree in Zhengzhou. For a start, we're in the middle of a drought, and anyway, the Chinese approach seems to favour the plastic variety. So, out come the paper stars and string, and voila my potted plant is (kind of ) festive!

I think that wherever you are, it is possible to find something which can remind you of home, but if you put all your energy into recreating exactly your normal British Christmas, you'll be disappointed and have no energy left to enjoy the festive period.

4. Call home

Skype is possibly the best invention ever.

5. Eat. A lot

Christmas isn't Christmas if you don't feel painfully full by the end. And by that logic, we went to the Sofitel in town for a massive Christmas buffet lunch. And wow, it was SO tasty, and there was SO much of it! It was the perfect Christmas activity...

6. Get into the festive mood

I started singing carols and Christmas songs with my students right at the beginning of December. I reminded them that Christmas was coming up most classes. I did Christmas shopping and planned pancakes and helped to put up decorations and got involved in the Christmas show. 

As the nights get longer and the days get colder, it'd hard not to feel a bit Christmassy, even if it's really more of a longing to drink hot drinks in front of a hot fire. But I think the more effort you put into it, the more fun you'll have. Spending Christmas here this year has taught me that feeling festive isn't a natural by-product of December, but is something which has to be worked on. At home, tradition and familiarity take much of the effort out of it, but away from home you have to make Christmas festive yourself, or you'll miss out. 

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