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The Christmas Learning Curve

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Christmas was never a given for me. It's not an official holiday in China, so Chinese New Year was always the biggest winter festivity for me. It may seem odd to you, but Christmas was something alien that I've had to learn about. And it's been an interesting learning curve...

When I was six, my mother moved to Finland. In case you didn't know, Finland is the official home of Father Christmas. This is a fact. So I wrote a letter to him, now that I had a mother conveniently close to the North Pole. And he wrote back. Illiterate as I was in English back then, I obviously couldn't read the letter - I'm not even entirely sure how I managed to write one, I must have known like six characters in Chinese then. But I remember the thrill that bit of paper brought me. It had come directly from the Santa Claus village in northern Finland. I don't actually know the details of how my parents pulled that one off. I'm not going to ask - magic is magic.

So I moved to Finland in the December of 1997, and the magic continued. Finland wasn't a bad place to learn about this holiday. Actual reindeer inhabited the forests, and there was snow - heaps and heaps of it. My earliest Christmases were in a tiny flat - we couldn't yet afford anything more - and they were wonderful. I remember trees - my parents really did try. For two consecutive years the holidays focused on enormous toy dogs that would appear in my bedroom overnight, wrapped in colorful paper. I remember squealing with pleasure, and carefully examining what I understood to be the doorway of the chimney of the apartment building in our kitchen. I think it was a ventilation cover of some sort.

At school I gradually learned about the holiday and all it entailed. I can't remember if there ever was a nativity play - if there was I wasn't cast in any major part, probably angel number three. I do remember performing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with vigour and passion. I also learned about the religion of the festivities. I can't remember who gave it to me, but the most memorable advent calendar I've ever had was a hardcover book, the pages of which you would un-stick from each other for every day passed. It was full of stories and beautiful paintings about baby Jesus and God's love. I was enthralled by it, and it was the centre of my life for 24 days. I can't recall how much faith it stirred in me, but I remember feeling calmed by the thought of angels.

I grew older, and it became cooler to dismiss consumerist Christmas. I heartlessly told my friends in one year of middle school not to buy me any presents, because I couldn't afford to buy them any. I opposed waste, and declared to my bemused parents that everything from trees to New Year fireworks was squandering precious resources. (Shortly after this I refused to get in the car for almost a year and took the bus absolutely everywhere.) The highlight (or lowest trough) of this phase was probably when I wrote a satirical version of the nativity play for the Christmas show. Our school was Nazareth, the neighboring school was Bethlehem, each character wore an A4 with their name written on it, and said things like "Yo homie" to each other. God featured too. He wore a Bob Marley beanie.

Over high school, I think I found peace with Christmas - apart from one year when my dad put up the most garish lights that befouled our house for a month. I loved the sense of peace that a Finnish Christmas always brought. Perhaps it has something to do with the way that snow brings a quietness that is almost deafening. Every Christmas Day, they would do a TV broadcast with Father Christmas, always looking a bit weary and confused, and the President would make a speech, and it would be calm and composed. I have memories of playing with candle wax at the kitchen table, and of the bizarre food our family would eat over the holidays. Sometimes my parents would cook some Finnish holiday staples, like ham, but then we'd probably also have noodles on the side.

It's been fun learning about Christmas here in the UK. It's a lot louder here. People seem to start celebrating in October, and I do miss that intense calm of a Finnish Christmas. Perhaps it's something only three feet of snow can really accomplish. But I've really enjoyed the festive anticipation. Mince pies and mulled wine delight me. Christmas pudding I don't love just yet, and crackers still terrify me a little, in case I hold them wrong around the table - I've been yelled at about this and panicked before. But people and festive cheer - there's been lots of that, to my great pleasure. Even in a student town. This year my friends and I sat around a table and ate turkey cooked on George Foreman grills, in Sainsbury's pitta bread. The boys used their projector to put a Youtube video of a fireplace on the wall. It was hardly conventional, but it felt like Christmas. The rest is just stuff, really.

I'm in China for the holidays this year. On Christmas Day, my family and I are going to see the Nutcracker. Then we're going out for sushi. I wouldn't have it any other way. Merry Christmas to all.