This Christmas has been one that I will always remember. Despite being 6,000 miles from my family in a land that does not recognize December 25 as a holiday, I managed to have a very merry Christmas crammed full of family and love.
Naturally, holidays are primetime for homesickness—all those “home for the holidays” and “I’ll be home for Christmas” songs exist for a reason, though they never really resonated with me until this year. But these days, the magic of modern technology is basically synonymous with a Christmas miracle. I skyped with my family so much that they probably got sick of having me around—there I was at Christmas Eve dinner; there I was watching my brothers open presents on Christmas morning; there I was at Christmas dinner. It was a floating-head Christmas.
And I am very fortunate to have friends and loved ones here in Ulan-Ude to spend my holiday with as well (because nothing breeds Christmas humbuggery like sitting in a lonely apartment all weepy and blubbery!) to fill my day with love and joy.
For Christmas Eve, Pia invited me to visit her family for their Christmas party. There I reveled in all the Christmas necessities of little children with toys, reunions between old family friends, an old blind dog, Russian salads, vaguely familiar and super-delicious German dishes, and my very first Christmas goose! It’s always difficult for me to feel comfortable surrounded by mostly strangers in their homes, but I was infected by Christmas cheer, and we grew on each other, and it turned out to be a lovely evening.
And the 25th also managed to turn into the holiday it’s supposed to be. For, though the Chinese don’t celebrate Christmas and their new year isn’t until February, we gathered together as international students and Russian language learners on so-called “Catholic Christmas” for a Russian New Year celebration. In the morning, a blustery -40 degrees, we loaded up onto a bus and took off for a “turbaza” just a little outside the city. There, we cooked up a Christmas feast, played games, greeted Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, and played out in the snow.
Probably the most important thing about Christmas is love—and my holiday was jam-packed full of it. The world may be full of anti-Americanism, but this country has shown me nothing but love. The most negative comment I’ve ever heard was, “I love America! But I hate your foreign policy.” Over a 24-hour period, four perfect strangers extended me invitations to their homes– and if that’s not love, I don’t know what is. Still, I’m pretty sure that the most adoring and unconditional love I’ve ever experienced outside of my family and close friends has come from the Chinese. I really bonded with my Chinese peers—both with my classmates and with the students from other groups. Within seconds of meeting some girls from another group (who speak surprisingly good English and love to practice!), I had an invitation to visit Shanghai for the summer. None of them have ever been shy about complimenting my blonde hair and blue eyes and “long” eyelashes. They love to pile food on my plate and offer me chairs and invite me to join them in whatever they’re doing. I was even talked into giving a speech during our meal (it was MY holiday, after all).
I felt like a celebrity, actually. An honored guest. When I took out my camera to start documenting my Russian-Chinese Christmas, I suddenly had a line of people waiting to take pictures with me. The girls in my class, my new friends, and even a couple that I hadn’t officially met yet—they all wanted to take pictures with me on their phones and cameras. I felt so loved. Like a best friend—or a really attractive movie star, maybe.
And you should really be jealous of the Christmas feast to which I was treated. Endless dishes piled high with homemade traditional Chinese foods prepared by actual Chinese people less than 300 miles from China (not a “sweet-and-sour or orange or General Tsao’s chicken in sight)—it was basically heaven. There is no shame in having Chinese for Christmas dinner because 1) It’s delicious, 2) I had GOOSE the day before (how much more Christmasy can you get?), and 3) It is a well-established and documented Christmas tradition (a la “A Christmas Story).
After our feast, we were paid a visit by Ded Moroz and Snegurochka (Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter “Snow Girl”). I had been more than a little puzzled by the presence of one of my PR students at our event—he clearly wasn’t a student of the Chinese language and was apparently unconnected to the department at all, wasn’t interacting with the students or even with me. But his sudden disappearance towards the end of our meal made his function crystal clear. Sure enough, he was playing Russian Santa. The Russian teachers had organized an authentic Russian New Year for us. According to tradition, we were supposed to perform for Ded Moroz. I was coerced into reciting a poem about cannibals, Zina sang, and a couple of the boys (and Ded Moroz…) danced “Gangam Style.” We participated in numerous games and competitions, winning candy prizes from our visitors. Then they distributed presents (more candy. Halloween came late this year!) and went off on their way.
We packed up and headed over to a different “Turbaza” with the intent of skiing. We ended up just playing on the free equipment. We were endlessly entertained by an icy slide and riding some sled-like contraptions down a hill. Later, a pack of 34 icicles and snowmen and Yetis piled back onto the bus to head back home.
While Ded Moroz deals mostly in sweets and Santa doesn’t visit Siberia (probably because here they turn his reindeer team into boots), I’ve been quite generous to myself this Christmas.
I broke down and bought a pair of bargain унты, and I love them to death.
Aaaaaand, I’ve got a trip to Mongolia in the works!!! But I won’t spoil the details for you yet.