A few months ago, my ex-partner and I were planning our supposedly first holidays together. At one point he invited me to spend it with him and his family. Quickly, I thought, is this the part where I get to live in a Hallmark Christmas movie? (I haven’t seen any but I’d like to assume it’s very much white, and well, they are too). The invite seemed special, however, I hesitated and politely declined the offer.
He and his family (even friends and relatives) quite surprisingly all moved as a unit and rarely consider doing different things apart from what their culture and traditions dictate.. They all dined together, partied together, shopped together, and left me both admiring it yet uncomfortable and restrictive as well. I grew up in a family that’s a total opposite of theirs.
Growing up, holiday traditions changed drastically for me. Funny when everybody expects an Asian, particularly Filipino, families celebrate this season massively while I spent years sat on a Christmas day mainly just stuffing my face with ham and takes multiple naps during the day. Don’t get me wrong, when we were kids, my parents did their best to make it special — hanging Christmas stockings, singing carols, church in the morning, visiting our relatives and grandparents, exchanging gifts and devouring on a feast of home-cooked food. Until everyone grew older and realized that Santa was a lie, I didn’t practice my religion so church visits halted, fights among relatives rise, granddad passed away and buying gifts became a burden over our pockets. We stopped traditions and doing things together.
This suddenly became a triggering season for me. Anxiously stressing about the overwhelming rush around as if a never-ending slap, a reminder of how different we are and I am. Joining a different family would’ve changed a lot for me at this point in my life. But it isn’t easy finding a supportive one that’s aligned for me too, though sometimes it seems like it should be, and joining my ex-partner’s white Christmas isn’t the best option for me and my triggers. It didn’t work out after all so here’s to creating and trying new game plans — one that would serve me gratitude, happiness and of course, a goddamn feast.
It’s important for me, my people and community to be heard and feel seen during this time because it’s so easy to drown over the dreamy, idealistic way holidays are presented in pop culture. Stereotypically, Asians have a pretty solid reputation for being grand. But there are stories we tell and don’t tell. We need people we can count on who see us as we really are. I spoke with eight incredibly vulnerable Asian womxn from distinct backgrounds about their thoughts and experiences during this season.
Big Asian Parties!
My family is not religious, but we still use “Christmas” as a way to celebrate, eat, and spend time with friends and family. I don’t have much-extended family in the United States, and the ones that I do have don’t live very close by, so my family usually celebrates Christmas with friends.
Our family both throws and attends what my friends and I term “BAPs” (“Big Asian Parties”) where all my Asian friends and their families get together at someone’s house on Christmas Eve for a potluck party. The food, a medley of home-cooked Asian and Western dishes, is always amazing. I always look forward to a spicy/savory noodle dish that my friend’s mom makes called Liang Mian (凉面), or Cold Noodle. I usually contribute a dessert and my parents usually cook fish or meat dishes. The parents usually sing karaoke embarrassingly and endearingly downstairs while us kids do our own thing upstairs.
As we have gotten older, our activities have evolved from hide-n-seek to Neopets/video games to Mafia to playing Truth or Dare in order to get each other to spill the tea on our college experiences. In a way, reflecting upon the evolution of BAPs over the years helps me understand how me and my childhood friends have grown, changed, and stayed the same. BAPs will always be a special part of my childhood and I am looking forward to going to more of them this holiday season!
Stillness Amongst Chaos
Christmas is my favorite holiday season of the year. A lot of people my age might prefer Halloween, as it’s a generally more exciting and fun occasion, but as an introvert and a homebody, nothing beats staying in for Christmas when everything slows down after a mad rush approaching the actual holiday.
Yes, there’s worse traffic and the hassle of gift buying during this time of year, but it’s also when people are more likely to think less about themselves and more about the other people in their lives. It’s when people try to be more thoughtful, caring, and selfless. I feel like most of our year is spent on dealing with our own individual struggles that we rarely have time to look outward and see the bigger picture. It’s during Christmas that we get to feel that humanity still exists in this world.
I’ve also come to realize that as we grow older, the harder we must work to make Christmas feel like Christmas– not just for us but for others. It’s easy for a kid to feel the holiday cheer. But that’s because there are adults who worked hard to make it happen. So even though it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the chaos of the holidays, what are we rewarded with on Christmas day itself? Stillness. An almost solemn kind of pause from the year that was. We get a moment to look up and see life in a kinder perspective.
A Triggering Season
The holidays have always been a triggering time for me, and it took me the last two years in therapy to realize why. When my mom was raising my sister and I as a single parent for most of our childhood, we didn’t engage in many holiday traditions. It was more for cultural reasons than financial, as she grew up in a small village in South Korea where extravagant Thanksgiving spreads and presents under a tree weren’t a thing. I didn’t realize we were missing out on anything until I started noticing themes in holiday movies— ripping presents open Christmas morning, families snuggled around a fireplace, eating variations of casseroles and stuffed, roasted birds. When we came back to school from winter break, my classmates would exchange stories about what they did and got for the holidays while I smiled awkwardly, having nothing to contribute to the conversation. As one of the only Asians in my suburban Atlanta elementary school, it was another reminder of how I was different from the people around me.
There were a few years I took it upon myself to begin family traditions, guiding my mom through the aisles of Kroger (a grocery chain in the South) to get ingredients from Thanksgiving recipes I got from my friends’ parents (before Google was a thing). I’d insist on making dishes my mom, my sister, and me could never finish and held a lot of resentment that our family was so different.
That’s what’s most triggering — how different I am, how different my family is to other families. We don’t really spend the holidays together. We don’t sit down for extravagant meals. We don’t exchange presents. Not because we don’t love each other, but because it’s never been a part of who we are.
But doing the work to heal myself and work through the traumas I have has helped me accept these things as part of what makes my experience uniquely mine. I wish I had an insightful way to summarize this, but I think there’s something real about my relationship to the holidays being unsolved and still ebbing and flowing through acceptance and anger. For anyone else who is triggered by photos of big family reunions, lively gatherings and feasts during the holidays, know that your experiences are just as valid. And even if the way you spend your holidays aren’t as photogenic or gram-worthy, it’s yours to hold and own.
Break My Little Bubble
I never had a holiday traditions growing up. My parents worked the night shift or couldn’t take time off during the holidays due to their jobs. I never realized how sad this was until I said it out loud to someone a year or two ago every Christmas, I’d wake up early (like before sunrise), open all my gifts, carry them back to my room, and fell back asleep. Typically my parents were already home from work and asleep.
I didn’t realize how odd this truly was until I started dating. My boyfriends were all Filipino for the most part and Christmas is a huge family holiday. This was my first view of what the holidays are like outside of my own little bubble. I would compare my family’s Lunar New Year celebrations to the Christmas celebrations I was experiencing outside of my home. I never felt like I was missing out on anything. Even now looking back, my parents did the best they could with what they were given. Now, I have the opportunity to create my own traditions with my husband and start anew.
A Chinese-Immigrant’s Christmas
Each year my family celebrated Christmas differently. As a first-gen immigrant to Canada, my little family of three only started celebrating it when I was three years old. For the first couple of years, my parents would go to the Salvation Army and pick up a bag of gifts for me. Each year they’d place all the gifts under our tree and wait for my ecstatic reaction to my surprise. These presents were a highlight of my childhood, even though I wasn’t born in Canada, Santa never forgot about me!
But as my family earned more, we no longer qualified for the charity’s gifts. At this point, my parents made enough friends for a family gathering. All our real family was overseas, so this will do. Each Christmas we’d take turns hosting Christmas dinners. We never had turkey, stuffing, or cranberry sauce. Instead, there was a BBQ pork, roast duck, and tofu. There’s no secret Santas, Christmas movie night, or eggnog. It’s the adults who are the carriers of traditions, but the ones I grew up around came from Communist China and lived tough childhoods. How could they possibly pass down Christmas carols?
I always remembered feeling unfulfilled after my Christmas break. I didn’t wave goodbye to my aunts, uncles or grandma. But while I see Christmas differently than people who do have big families to celebrate with. As an adult, I can fully appreciate the spirit. The deeper meaning of spending time with your loved ones, to relax, and ring in the new year on a full belly. That’s still a luxury and a privilege to have parents and a makeshift family, and there’s nothing jollier than that.
Pay A Fake Santa
When I was a kid, around 8 or 10 at the time, you can pay a fake Santa to give your kids their presents in our town during the holidays. When it comes to Christmas we only ever cared about the food, I only started the tradition of secret Santas with my family when I turned 20. So when I was young I would be dead asleep at 12 midnight. We never got to do anything because I was you know, asleep.
But one morning my mom dressed me up in pink coordinates, she told me it’s almost our turn. I was excited even though I knew it was fake Santa. So when he and his crew arrived to hand me my gift I also
got the worst photo op ever. I didn’t smile. I saw the walkie talkies being held by the staff to tell them which route they are taking him next. My dad was part of the crew because his friend was a fake Santa. I saw them fixing his beard because he’s already sweating. It was pure mayhem. But it’s very dear to me.
Even though I’m now 22 my parents never ever told me that Santa isn’t real. And even though that gig was a total mess I appreciate the fact that they keep giving me their all just so I wouldn’t feel less.
Ham Appreciation Day
I grew up in a small family. We never hang out with relatives during Christmas because, well.. we hate all our relatives. No shame there. But sometimes I feel a slight bitterness towards people who prepare for the happy holidays with their favorite cousins, great grandparents and exchanging cheap presents in Marks & Spencer bags. I’d take that over yelling in front of the ham any day. But that isn’t Christmas for me.
The last four months in my calendar rhymes with failure, anger, [never] better. As I grew older, Christmas became another normal day where we forcefully gather our family, pretend we’re having fun talking about memories until failures are brought up, anger arises, then shouting pursues arguments, and sleeping suddenly sounds better than having to hang around people until midnight. It’s an annual routine.
Maybe I’m slightly overreacting (of course I’m not), but I know it isn’t just about family gatherings. it’s about appreciating the small things and even though you think I’m complaining about the rough times, I am pretty grateful I get to spend another year with my loved ones. I hope it’s a lot better for you.
A Letter From Mr. Claus
On Christmas morning I received a letter from Santa. I was five. Mom told me Santa had dropped by our place and delivered it to her. The letter mentioned how sorry he was for not seeing me the previous night and how he appreciated what a good girl I had been through the year. My mom didn’t have a happy marriage, but she did her best to give me the perfect Christmas morning.
It’s odd how important Christmas is for me and for my culture. We South Koreans don’t have a national religion, but Christmas is a holiday. We watch Home Alone, fill cafes with carols as soon as winter comes around, make sure every fancy restaurants are fully booked on the Eve, and we tell children about Santa.I remember the joy of finding the gift and letter in the morning, imagining Mr. Santa Claus standing in our hallway, whispering greetings to Mom so they wouldn’t wake me up. I still remember the wedge of sadness when I finally learned it hadn’t been real. Since then, I’ve had an unrequited love for Christmas.
Only after I had built my own marriage could I reflect that it was the idea of a happy family I had been after, and now Christmas means more of a holiday of limited selections by beauty brands than a symbol. Nonetheless, I shall tell my child about Santa someday. Because nothing can take away the unblemished moments of childhood. No hardship can deny that I was the girl who got a letter from Santa.