Big City Holiday Traditions

by Siobhan Brown



There is something so special about the holidays. The lights, the celebrations, the decorations, and the music all help to bring on such a festive feeling.  They can also make us nostalgic for our home countries, our loved ones and the past we had before Shanghai. During the holidays it can help to return to our roots by resurrecting past rituals and traditions we enjoyed in our home countries. Traditions are especially important for children as they provide our youngest family members with a sense of security and comfort. In a big and ever-changing city where friends come and go and the landscape changes in a blink of an eye, it is helpful to return to what we know and express who we are as a family and the values we hold dear. It is also important to explore our current surroundings, adapting to our environment by creating traditions that are more suitable to our new home. These rituals are our family footprints that change as we traverse the globe, growing and evolving as a family.

One of the realities of moving to a new city for many of us however, is that we must leave our extended families behind and this can have a big impact on holiday traditions. If you have no family visiting and have no plans to return home this Christmas, it is only natural to experience some feelings of sadness. For those of us who come from big families, we may be conditioned to think that it’s not a proper holiday celebration unless we have a house full of people coming and going. There is after all, something very communal about Christmas. While we may not be able to sit down to a meal with our extended families this year, writing cards and planning Skype calls can also help to link us with those who live far away. And there are enormous advantages to smaller scale celebrations. More intimate get-togethers provide us with the opportunity to truly connect with our loved ones without the stress of large scale party planning. As well, being alone with our spouse and children over the holidays without the distractions of work and school, gives us the chance to regroup and experience new holiday traditions that might not be possible within a large gathering.

When thinking about ways to spend the holidays in your new home, try discussing ideas with your children to make them feel part of the process. Their suggestions may surprise you. Perhaps they want to go bowling, sing KTV, have a night in a hotel on the Bund, or just enjoy a quiet board game together at home. Maybe they want to ask a new friend to join in the celebration. The best thing about living in a big city is the variety of people we are able to meet and the opportunity it gives us to open our homes and hearts, as we create our new extended expat family. These friends often become an essential lifeline when living in a foreign place. The holidays are a perfect time to celebrate friendships both new and old, in the comfort of your family home.

A tradition my family enjoyed in Canada on Christmas involved hopping in the family car and driving through all the neighborhoods to admire the lights. One challenge we found when first moving to Shanghai, was where to go to see the festive decor. Here in Shanghai it is possible to find Christmas in all it’s magic and wonder. Now that we have been in Shanghai seven years, we have created new family traditions. We enjoy taking a  family walk to our local flower market. Decorations, lights, and trees abound and shopkeepers are busy wrapping poinsettias and creating beautiful wreaths and centerpieces. Christmas music plays and the smell of fresh pine lingers in the air. It’s an easy, affordable, and enjoyable way to see the variety of Christmas decor Shanghai has to offer.

As for the Christmas dinner, cooking together can also provide precious bonding time for a family. For many families an important holiday tradition is coming together in the kitchen. Visit the local wet markets before dinner and pick fresh ingredients to use. Once back at home, kids at any age can help out, whether it’s spraying ham, peeling carrots, stirring ingredients or reading from a recipe book. Even the youngest can get in on the action rolling dough or pushing out shapes with a plastic cutter. There is a way to involve everyone in the preparation and execution of a beautiful holiday meal. And a meal made together tastes all the better. Some families may want to create new traditions when it comes to their holiday fare. Christmas is a fabulous time to eat out in the city. With so many gorgeous restaurants to choose from in Shanghai, it is perhaps the best time of year to dine out not in. Find a set meal at a good price and dress in your finest attire for a memorable night out.  The city is quiet this time of year, taxis are plentiful, and without the crowds to compete with, your family is sure to receive a warm welcome and attentive service.

During dinner take advantage of this quality time together. One of the best ways to do this is to each take turns going over what you are most thankful for. Practicing gratitude is what Christmas is all about (even if our pint sized family members may be a little more focused on the main event involving a sleigh full of gifts). It’s beneficial to remind ourselves that the holiday season is all about giving and being grateful for what we receive. Some families enjoy writing down on a piece of paper what they are most grateful for this year and storing them in a box to be read next Christmas. This is a beautiful way to chronicle your families journey and emotional growth throughout the years.

Once the meal is over try choosing an activity that you can all do together. This is so much more memorable than disappearing behind a collection of electronic devices. Snuggling under blankets with hot chocolate over a holiday movie or reading Christmas stories can be a wonderful way for families to come together. In my family we watched the movie “A Christmas Story” every year  and it was something we all looked forward too. Watching this with my son connects me to both my past and present, taking me from who I am now as a mom back to who I was many years ago as a little girl.  No matter where I move in this world, this simple holiday tradition reminds me of my heritage and helps to center and ground me.

Living in a big city doesn’t mean one has to settle for a Christmas that is somehow “less” than it was back home. By embracing Shanghai, enjoying old and creating new traditions, a big city Christmas can become something memorable and even exceptional. For my family, the simple act of curling up with a familiar movie, makes the world seem less harried. Suddenly home isn’t so far away, it’s right here, kept safe inside my memories and in the new memories I’m making, with my son and husband this holiday season.

Things To Do Over the Holidays

Take A Family Walk In Your Neighborhood

Visit Your Local Flower Market to Enjoy the Decorations

Watch a Holiday Classic

Say What You Are Each Thankful For This Year

Bring Money and Food to Your Local Homeless

Play A Board Game

Sing Christmas Carols

Invite a New Family For Dinner