(The Tiger Father's piece published in That's Beijing magazine this month ... with bonus photos!)
For this Australian family, Christmas finally makes sense. It seems perverse, but we had to come to Communist, atheist, non-pudding-believing China for this to happen.
Beijing doesn’t always turn on a white Christmas. Sometimes it’s just gray. And sometimes, if there’s snow around December 23, and that snow gathers at the roadsides, it’s more of a taupe Christmas.
But at least it’s a cold Christmas. As a kid in Australia, this festival never matched the images we were fed of it. We’d see pictures of kids opening presents by a frosted window, or eating steaming pudding by a roaring fire. Then we’d switch off the telly and go outside in shorts and singlet – to play cricket. How we scurried across the road so our bare feet wouldn’t burn.
Where I grew up, a small town 400 miles west of Sydney, the summers were boiling. December 25 was often the hottest day of the year. But like much of Australia, we’d sit there laboring through our uncomfortably hot, incredibly vast lunch.
Our English grandmother would insist on a Christmas like back home. Watching my dad’s crepe-paper hat disintegrate on his sweaty forehead, we’d struggle through our roast chicken, roast potatoes, roasted peas. Gran would have roasted the ice cream if she could have. As it was we had hot pudding, with hot sauce, to come. Thank God we couldn’t drink the mulled wine til we were eight!
No, none of that makes much sense if you're part of the minority who hail from the southern hemisphere (like gay people and left-handers, only one in 10 come from below the equator). What’s more, there was hardly a chimney anywhere, and no sound reason to find a ‘yule’ log and set it alight, particularly in bushfire season. (That word always confused me. I thought it was connected to ‘Yule bloody well eat your Brussels Sprouts young man!”)
Some things have changed. Cold seafood spreads are now, thankfully, an acceptable Christmas lunch. But walk through an Australian mall in December even now and the atmosphere-makers will try to convince you you’re walking in a winter wonderland, complete with Frosty the Snowman and one-horse open sleighs. (Australian carols have been tried and failed. Rolf Harris sang one about six white kangaroos pulling Santa under the Australian sun. Just didn’t work).
But here in Beijing, it all started to make sense from when I stepped out on my first Christmas here in 1995. The roads were clogged with traffic. Children were heading to school. OK those bits weren’t Christmassy. But at least it was cold. Snowmen didn’t look out of place, as they did in the Australian outback. Plus, it felt good to eat a roasted potato, albeit a sweet one from a 44 gallon drum whose owner had never heard of Jesus, Santa or elves.
And I had never seen a sleigh until 2009 in Harbin. This is why, especially for children, we love Christmas in a cold climate.
|Here are some southern Christmas Day pics from the web I|
thought I'd show the 90 per cent of you who aren't from
what we parochially call 'God's Hemisphere'.
This one's from Australia.
|Here's how they do Christmas in Brazil.|
|Namibia. Hmmm ... Could've tried|
|Papua New Guinea. Good to see kids there|
are creeped out by a Santa, or two, just like
|And this is as south as it gets - Antarctica!|
Actually, that seems a bit more normal.
|And they've even got sleighs in Antarctica, full of gifts for|
the children like fuel drums and tripods.
I was stunned by my first London Christmas. In Australia, kids spend most of the day out on their new bikes, roller blades, etc. The streets are filled with laughter and joy to the world.
In London, I wasn’t just surprised by the atmosphere, I was disturbed. Walking through empty streets, it felt less like Christmas and a lot more like some unspeakable tragedy had occurred. It was so indoorsy, much pre-Christmas excitement was tied to what the TV networks would show on the day. And then it got dark about 3.00pm!
In fact, if you’re a southern hemispherian wanting a cold Christmas, there are reasons Beijing’s is actually better than London’s.
1. It’s not supposed to be Christmas, so there are no disappointments.
2. If certain Christmas Carols make your skin crawl, listening to them in Chinese is blessed relief. Chinglish is even better. Also, during Santa Claus is Coming to Town, watch for knowing nods from locals at talk of an omniscient presence knowing when you’re sleeping, awake, bad, good etc.
3. All the shops are open, in case you’ve forgotten the cranberry sauce. Or your wife’s present. (A recent survey showed 94 per cent of men are still out buying gifts on December 24. That low!)
4. You could argue China, not the North Pole, is now the home of Christmas. Check the labels on your trees, decorations, costumes and 99 per cent of presents.
There have still been obstacles to overcome in Beijing Christmasses. My wife isn’t actually a Santa fan (at least I can console myself I’m in good company if ever I’m in the dog house). Still we’ve decided to do a little Santa. The trouble, again, is chimneys – in high rise apartments.
I’ve tried several solutions. Once, explaining Santa could pick door locks, I made fake snow footprints from the door to our tree. Our kids were enthralled. Then I spent most of Christmas morning cleaning. Turns out flour is enormously hard to vacuum.
The next year I got smarter, setting out puddles of water as ‘snowmelt’ from Santa’s boots. By morning, thanks to underfloor heating, these had evaporated without trace. Maybe this year I’ll use mud.