How My Chinese Family Celebrates Christmas Over The Years

Come December, many of us around the world celebrate Christmas, or at the very least acknowledge this festive occasion one way or another. This includes my Chinese-Malaysian family for as long as I can remember.

No one in my immediate Asian family goes to church or follows the faith Christianity. We’ve never put up a Christmas tree at home. Never went caroling. But when I was a kid growing up in Australia, my parents wrapped presents for me and my brother in the lead up to Christmas day. They did pretty much the same when we later lived in Malaysia and Singapore – among other things too around this time of the year.

December. A time to unwind.

December. A time to unwind Weekly Photo Challenge: Relax.

Not all of us commemorate the history behind Christmas or the birth of Jesus Christ but still get into the spirit of this season. Different cultures around the world have different ways of celebrating or spending it, or even similar ways of celebrating.

In quite a few Asian cities, when December rolls around it’s time to have fun and essentially be a part of the commercial side surrounding Christmas. In Japan, Vietnam and Thailand where Buddhism is widely followed, Christmas day is not an official holiday but this is not an excuse to not let loose or deck out places with festive décor. A study by the China Social Survey Institute noted some Chinese see Christmas as an ‘excuse to party’ and felt many Chinese festivals are comparatively ‘solemn, serious and spiritual’. And so Christmas is a chance for some stereotypically workaholic Asians to take a breather from routines all too familiar.

Although Christmas Day is a public holiday in Malaysia, it’s full-swing business as usual for most shops in this country. No secret many Malaysians like shopping, any day. On Christmas days back then, dad woke me and my brother up before 9am and then drove us to one of the big shopping malls downtown – all in a bid to get a parking space. After we parked, for the next six hours both he and my mum dragged me and my brother from store to store to check out year-end sales, no matter how much me and my brother wailed together, “How boring!”. But the folks never failed to treat us to McDonalds midway, which really was just a smidge of consolation…

Christmas time in Asia is a time to indulge in good food, a time to have big banquets and honour the idea of family. Togetherness is a virtue in Chinese cultures: there’s the sense of filial piety coming home and being a family unit once again after a year where we’ve all been places. As a teenager, each Christmas in Malaysia was a Christmas where my family attended at least one big family dinner with the extended relatives. During the years my family lived in Singapore, dad drove us – five, six hour drives – back to Kuala Lumpur, the heart of Malaysia where most of our family are, for these dinners.

December. It's a time to look up. Reflect on what has been and what may be. Reach up.

December. It’s a time to look up. Reflect on what has been and what may be. Reach up.

For many of these dinners, my big Chinese family was privileged to have our own private dining rooms, rooms booked months in advance. Even then we could still hear other restaurant patrons outside shouting yum seng over and over, toasting to the end of the year. A lot of the time this raucousness was a welcome distraction from the awkward silences between me and my far-flung relatives who had nothing much to say to me but, “What level are you in school?” and “Who is your boyfriend?”

During Christmas time, festive lights streak along the streets in Asia, turning these streets into fairytale wonderlands, sometimes looking downright kawaii. As fellow blogger Constance from Foreign Sanctuary shared, there are rows and rows of colourful lights in Taiwan for the occasion. Lina from My Hong Kong Husband shows us how Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong lights up with LED lights around alongside Pokémon and My Melody Christmas decorations. In Singapore, the famous city shopping strip Orchard Road lights up for kilometres for the with a different theme each year. In the weeks before driving back to Malaysia for the family banquets, my parents took me and my brother to see these light shows along Orchard Road. There were always packed crowds, humidity hit me head on and my parents would erratically point in front trying to get me to get me to see the lights on show over heads much taller than me

Another memory of Christmas in Malaysia were the instances when my parents took teenage me to the shopping malls to see even more Christmas decorations. As CL over at Real Gunners said, Malaysian malls would be dolled up like winter wonderlands or European winter villages. At some point ‘Santa Claus’ would make appearances at the mall and my parents would bring me up to him to take photos. Interestingly enough, I noticed it was always a white man with blue/green eyes-fair-skin behind the Santa Claus outfit – the novelty of this never seems to wear off in Asia. Asian Santa Clauses’ were not something I remembered from my childhood, and it baffled me.

December. It's a time to reach deep, give, think deep.

December. It’s a time to reach deep, give, think deep.

Some might argue that Christmas is a rather exclusive Western person’s festive occasion as it’s celebrated predominantly in the Western world. But the spirit of Christmas has always been about giving, being thankful for what and who we have – not where we’re from and what we do. A study in the U.S found around three quarters of Asian-Americans Buddhists and Hindus celebrate Christmas, joining in Christmas merrymaking. Anyone can be a part of Christmas if their heart desires, just as we can make anything happen if really we want something and be a part of something and go for it.

The commercialisation of Christmas can be hard to run away from. It may not make us a better person. It can bring out the worst in us. It can make us go around in circles when it comes to finding what we truly want. Along Orchard Road during Christmas time in Singapore, as people flitted around me with shopping bags in hand, strolling, gazing up at twinkling lights, my feet ached from meandering the crowds. I wondered how much of Christmas shopping and lights and boisterous celebrations we’d actually care about years from now.

Since my Chinese-Malaysian family moved to Melbourne, Christmas has been much more low-key. The day is a public holiday in Australia with practically all the shops shut, and I usually spend it at my parent’s place for a BBQ or we have meal in Chinatown. In my first year back in Melbourne, we also went to see the Christmas decorations in the city and the festive decor was pretty eye-catching. The next year not so eye-catching because it was the same decorations. And the year after. And even this year (I’ve stopped going to see these decorations). Predictable.

Truth be told, there’s no escaping predictably when it comes to Christmas, and any festive occasion that comes round. For some of us, that gives us something to look forward to, something that speaks to us: with Christmas, we come to yearn the thought behind putting together shiny wonderland lights, the meals together, the giving.

However, not everyone likes Christmas and holiday seasons for exactly these reasons. Not everyone likes every holiday occasion no matter how much the occasion encourages us to be thankful for what and whom we have. It could be because of the commerciality. The need to put on a show. The rush and desperation to give. The togetherness wears us down in one way or another. Or personally personal reasons and beliefs.

December. It's a time for wishing. Where we feel that magic, anything, can happen.

December. It’s a time for wishing. Where we feel that magic, anything, can happen.

These days, I don’t look forward to Christmas. But I don’t not look forward to it either. I’m thankful for Christmas meals together. I don’t miss getting and unwrapping presents as much as it’s nice to receive gifts. I don’t miss walking down Orchard Road and seeing the Christmas lights as visually pleasing to the eye as they are. ‘Christmas’ can be whenever we want it to be. And it feels like another day to me today.

Come December in Australia it’s summer, and it’s winter in the middle of the year here. Each winter in Australia there is something called ‘Christmas in July‘ or also known as the Yuletide, where there are Christmas themed events around Australia during this chilly time of the year for us. It’s technically not another official Christmas…but really is another day, another rather random moment for some of us to count our blessings.

It’s always the thought that counts, real Christmas time or not, all day, every day. As Autumn Asborough from West Dates East recounted on treating others, ‘we have to look out for each other’. And then we’ll all be okay.

Keep it simple. Keep it together.

How does your country/culture celebrate Christmas? (This is my last post until some time next year. Until then, wishing you well   🙂 )

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272 thoughts on “How My Chinese Family Celebrates Christmas Over The Years

  1. I no longer really look forward to Christmas, Mabel. I’m totally against the commercialism part that it has become, the insanity to buy buy buy. I also live with a Vietnam Vet who dreads this time of year and no matter what I have said or tried to do, I haven’t had a whole lot of success for him to enjoy Christmas. I have a small list of special people that I actually make things for which to me means so much more then going out to buy. Christmas used to be my favorite season of all, but sadly, no more. Your post was fascinating to read and your photos all excellent! You really are a great writer, so please don’t give up on it. Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year which brings to you Joy, Love, and Peace. Much Love, ❤

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  2. I love your photographs, Mabel!

    Christmas is such a strange time of year and I think you’ve hit on the reasons why. There are deeply polarized opinions, with a vast group of people in the middle with vaguely ambivalent feelings.
    There is family togetherness vs the commercialism … but what about all those with rocky relationships? There is the message of peace and goodwill, while at the same time people are short-tempered and badly behaved in shopping mall parking lots and cashier checkouts.

    Best wishes, Mabel. Whichever way you choose to spend the holidays, I hope it brings you happiness 🙂

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    • You are so right. Those with rocky relationships might not be so keen on seeing certain someones during such occasions. There is also some desperation in the air when you see others getting agitated getting their gifts, and it is not always a pleasant sight.

      Thank you for your kind words, Joanne. I hope you have a good time this holiday and you make the most of it the way you want it 🙂

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  3. In the past, I sort of looked toward to Christmas but this year has been different. I will still celebrate it but it will be different.

    Wishing you a Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

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  4. I struggled with Christmas in China my first two years here. You’re right in the observation that many Chinese do not connect with the holiday the way some Westerners do, but instead chalk it up to a shopping excuse – of which they have many (Chinese Valentine’s Day, Singles Day, etc.). Anymore, it’s just a time when I try to keep upbeat. My family had dramatic holidays when I was a kid, and so I tend to get contemplative at this time of year as an adult. I do love the flexibility of the modern Chinese mentality. If it helps them make a buck or gives them a chance to break the monotony of work, they’ll give anything a try. It’s probably one of the most opportunistic places around. I really do mean that good-naturedly! Who doesn’t want to better their station and provide for their family!?

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    • I like your positive take on this whole Christmas affair in China. True that this time of the year it is a more prosperous time for businesses, whether big or small. Fact is, a lot of working-class Chinese are ready to spend. Also agree with you that it applies to so many other (non-Chinese) holidays too. On the plus side, there is only so much shopping you can do.

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  5. While I was growing up in China, there was no celebration of Christmas, though I was aware of its existence due to mentions on Hong Kong TV. Someone or other had told me that Christmas was on December 26, and that was what I believed up until I came to Australia. Turns out that was Mao’s birthday.

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    • That is a clever observation on the day after Christmas, Mao’s birthday. It can be a bit of a dividing time of the year in China, for there are certainly dividing opinions on his legacy. Perhaps especially so for those who experienced the Cultural Revolution. Thanks for chiming in, Sam. Very lovely to see you again.

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  6. I am not that keen on Christmas anymore. This happened when the children grew up. It became more effort and less fun. And the commercialism is a bit distracting. I used to like the lights but now find some of them here a tad garish! The lights in Singapore, however, were lovely. I think it was that it was a little unexpected for me. I was expecting this hot climate and my friend advised me that she would meet me next to the snowman in Orchard Road! Best wishes for the festive season.

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    • Singapore certainly knows how to put on a light show and glad you enjoyed. Or maybe you enjoyed the moment because you were in a different country and traveling. It is always an occasion when we travel and are some place new.

      Best wishes for the season too. Take it easy. I am certainly looking forward to enjoying it and doing as less as possible 😀

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  7. I am not a fan of Christmas (too commercial) and I was so looking forward to getting away from it when we headed to South East Asia. How silly was I. Apparently, there is no running from the holiday. The celebrations are in full swing here in Malaysia and Singapore and have been making me quite grumpy (bah humbug). But now, reading your article, you’ve helped me see the local celebrations through your ‘child’s eye’ and softened my heart a bit in the process ! Thanks for that lovely gift.

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  8. What a delightful post dear Mabel, I so much enjoyed reading about your celebrations of Christmas growing up, all those big dinners and joyous occasions! I laughed about the welcome distractions from those typical questions from far flung relatives – so very true the world over! Ahh…for me, as you know, Christmas is a time to celebrate a coming together of my family, having all my chicks back in the nest, of traditions celebrated since my childhood and theirs. A time to remember the true Light of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, which for me is paramount.

    The lights everywhere remind me of the true light of the message of Christmas, of hope and peace and grace. It is wonderful to celebrate with joy in our hearts wherever we are. I hope you enjoy this Christmas dear friend, they do change as the years go by. As much as I love my family gathering, it is a lot of work for me! The presents are one thing (and the commercial side of the season is getting out of hand, I agree…) but it is mainly the food! Phew…I get a huge turkey and then we live on leftovers until I can face going grocery shopping again, as far into the New Year as possible, lol! I was fascinated to read that Christmas Day for you in Malaysia meant going shopping!

    Your description of the occasion makes me think of Boxing Day here, always the day after Christmas and a public holiday, yet the shops kick off huge sales after closing for the one day of the year for Christmas. I don’t go anywhere near the shops and the craziness, I’m too exhausted, but happily so!!! No doubt I miss some great bargains, but I can with that lol. Always such a pleasure to read your wonderful posts, thank you for your beautiful photos, sentiments and fascinating read where I always learn something about different cultures and celebrations.

    Merry Christmas dear Mabel, and I wish for you a very Happy New Year filled with joy, hope, peace and every blessing for the year to come. I look forward to catching up with you in 2017! Much love…Sherri ❤

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    • Christmas sounds like such a great time for you, Sherri. I hope this year it will be equally as loving and cozy, and everyone has a good time tucking into that turkey you prepared and all the other delicious things too. Good on you for working hard at that. I wish I could come over for some 😀 I love how you associated the lights around Christmas time with the message of “hope and peace and grace”. Very symbolic and certainly there is much meaning behind Christmas.

      Boxing Day is also big here in Australia. Some people will even queue up bright and early at 5am just to rush into the shops and try to get the best bargains. But like you, this is not me and I prefer to stay far away from it all. Even the cinemas get really crowded on this day and I stay away from them too. I really am not a fan of shopping to be honest, never grew out of that “hate shopping” phase that I had when I was a kid! It is going to be a warm summer Christmas for us here in Australia, so I will try my best not to overdo anything and get all hot and bothered.

      Wishing you well this season, Sherri. Take care, and stay safe. Lots of love to you as well, beautiful 🙂

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      • Ahh dear Mabel, it seems ages since I replied to you, Christmas has been and gone and I am barely emerging! I hope you had a wonderful Christmas celebration and kept well away from all those shops, ha! I also hope you are keeping cool and comfortable. It’s colder again here, more frost which I love as you know 🙂 We had a lovely Christmas, thank you, I miss my boys, but I feel so blessed to have had my family together for 5 days…and now, hard to believe, it’s already 2017! Happy New Year to you my sweet friend, I hope this year is kind to you and brings you your heart’s desire…and here’s to many more shared stories and visits and happy conversations. I’ll warm up the Summerhouse even though I won’t be back just yet while I get back to my revisions, but I will see you very soon! Lots of love and New Year hugs to you…and see you soon lovely one! 🙂 ❤ 🙂

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        • That is so heartwarming to hear you had a great Christmas with your family for five days. Must have been a lot of food, laughter and great company amidst the cold that you so love. It was a warm Christmas here in Melbourne for us, but on New Year’s and today it was pretty cold…like winter. But it’s forecast to warm up soon, which you know I love.

          Lots of hugs to you and best wishes. See you soon. It will be a special year I feel… Take care ❤

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          • Thank you dear Mabel! And yes, a lot of food, the leftovers of which have now at last gone! I hope you are enjoying your warmer weather, basking in the lovely sunshine ⭐ It is like a winter wonderland here today, white, hard frost everywhere, icy cold 🙂 Here’s to a special year for us both…yes please! Much love and big hugs and see you very soon my friend! ❤ 🙂

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              • Bless you dear Mabel…I am basking in your warmth and smiling as I do so, just what I needed on this grey, dank day 🙂 Dusting off the Summerhouse in readiness for business…hope your 2017 is flying high in that delicious blue sky! ❤

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  9. Spot on! Christmas is the time to indulge in good food. I’m gonna be hitting the gym tomorrow but I’m not ready to face the scale yet. 😂

    Merry Christmas. Greetings from Indonesia.

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  10. Great pix, M. Businesses will always take advantage of holidays to capitalize on people’s desires. There’s also the burden of obligation to give in certain relationships. It is good to hold onto your values and boundaries while enjoying the opportunity to express love to those dearest to us. Hope it’s a special week.

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    • So wisely put, D. Sometimes some of us give because we feel we have to…when in reality gratitude and love can always be expressed in other ways. Hope it is a good week for you, and take care.

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  11. Hi Mabel, Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post on how you have celebrated Christmas with your family over the years. More so to know how your parents would took you and your brother for shopping. Though you would wail during those trips to the mall, yet those memories of togetherness are imprinted in your mind till date.
    Christmas seems to be a festival celebrated worldwide. As you have rightly pointed out that more than the religious connotation, it is the spirit of Christmas that prevails all over. In India too there is an exuberance in the air during Christmas.
    Commercialization of all festivals is a reality of the day. Though I also do not quite like this aspect, but businesses will always capitalize on times when people are in a mood for festive spending.

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    • It is so true about those memories of shopping with the family during Christmas. I disliked these shopping trips, but looking back at them I feel nostalgic.

      You are so right in saying that commercialisation is reality for all festivals these days. On the positive side, this commericalisation spreads the word about such festivals and if we really are the curious kind, we will look for the meaning behind them.

      I hope you had a good Christmas and a safe start to the new year. Looking forward to reading more from you soon. Always so well written from poetry to current affairs in India.

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  12. I’m sure you’re familiar with how we celebrate Christmas in KL, Mabel, so I won’t say too much about it. =)

    Being a born and bred Catholic, I’d attend either the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or morning Mass on Christmas Day (but predominantly the former because I love how energising the aura can be). Since the shopping malls are packed like sardines with humans/shoppers, we’d loll around the house with the four-legged and over the special meals (turkey and sea cucumbers) or invite a couple of friends over for the festive season. Nothing changed much during our time in Auckland except that we’d hop in the car and cruise down one of the streets in the western suburbs to admire the Christmas-decorated houses. My parents would automatically know what I mean when I say ‘Candy Cane Lane houses’.

    Now that I’m older and in Adelaide, I don’t look forward to the festive season anymore – partly because I’m in a foreign land… and am much more comfortable celebrating Christmas in KL. It’s just what it is. Not to mention, it’s heavily commercialised. =(

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  13. It’s very interesting to read more about your xmas experience. I think it’s difficult to feel very xmas when it’s not cold outside.

    When I was little, xmas was more a commercial thing than a religious thing, but always had a meal with the family and we put up a tree, and we exchanged a few gifts. When I started to live by myself I didn’t bother putting up a tree but.. for the first time in 7 years we have bought a xmas tree. We didn’t buy any gift but I wanted a tree to cheer me up during the long winter nights 🙂

    Xmas is not a big deal to be honest but I like the xmas lights 🙂

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  14. It sounds wonderful – less emphasis on the ‘day’ i.e Christmas Day and more on the time period, which is what it should be about. Here in the UK, the shops are shut on Christmas Day and that day is the one that everyone leads up to, the big meal, the present giving, the family time. Lately I’ve noticed more and more that people seem to be focusing on the Christmas period – that Christmas Eve to New Years Day period with family time, games, shopping, meals, presents…and I like that idea much better. Working so hard for one day of peace and food is exhausting! Love the photos. 🙂

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    • Really like how you put it, Kathryn. The Christmas period as opposed to just one day and time – that is certainly what the end of year is about for quite a few of us. Time to unwind and just be ourselves, and most importantly enjoy the moment. Hope you had a great Christmas and New Year’s. And lots of good food and that is wasn’t too hard for you to put it all together 🙂

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  15. Excellent essay about what Christmas means to you and your family. I was smiling at the image of your parents getting an early parking space to shop with you and your brother! 🙂 Wishing you a fabulous 2017 Mabel, and I look forward to more of your terrific posts.

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  16. mabel – enjoyed this so much and I also found that it had me thinking abotu what I like and don;t like about this holiday – even though I am late to the discussion – to where it might feel late – like I just put my pointsettias outside and I was marveling at how gorgous they felt to buy at Thanksgiving and how all of December I enjoyed the red from them… but then yesterday could not loook at them for another second. funny.
    but I think that the small bits of christmas I like are what you noted about the sme things and traditions “that gives us something to look forward to, something that speaks to us”

    and your photos “looking up’ – are nice….

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  17. Loved reading this fascinating post…so much interesting information and so well written, as always. I really enjoyed reading about your family traditions and chuckled over the Western Santa Claus. It is always interesting to see how different cultures and people celebrate a holiday such as christmas which has become in many places so very overly commercial. Terrific photos too.
    Peta

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    • Tanks so much, Peta. Very kind of you. Christmas is commercial in so many places all over the world and I think many of us are used to it this way. Best wishes for the year ahead, and looking forward to more posts from you 🙂

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  18. This Andie Case person is very beautiful. Nice voice too.
    ANyway, that’s not what I wanted to say. I stopped by to say that we celebrate Christmas, but we call it Jul (Yule) and we don’t have any religious aspect around it in my family.
    It’s my favorite holidays: being with the family, eating good food, presents. It’s all good.
    P.S. This weekend I’m getting a Couchsurfer from Malaysia.

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    • Hope you had good holidays and it looked like a good one on your IG. Yes, Andie Case is very beautiful. Beautiful body 😉 Saw her live last year, and she really can sing.

      I am sure you will get along great the the Couchsurfer from Malaysia. Sounds like an exciting start to the year for you already.

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    • You made Christmas festivities come alive with your post. I appreciate the fact that others who are of different religious and cultural background find something to appreciate in the season. Being with family is always a time for celebration.

      I grew up in the Philippines which is predominantly Catholic. So to me, Christmas is more of the expression of faith than the external celebrations (which can be quite fun and overwhelming at the same time). I lament the over commercialization of the season (and of most things as well).

      These days, my family, which happens to live in a wintry place, has a more quiet celebration. We go to the Christmas Eve Mass when we can and spend Christmas Day together opening presents.

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      • It is nice to hear that Christmas for you is about remembering your faith and what is most important to you. There will be commercialisation everywhere, but we all have a choice to step away from it and celebrate what is really worth celebrating. Wishing you well this year, Imelda.

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  19. I understand that a lot of Jewish families go to Chinese restaurants on Christmas–perhaps the only ones that are open. So, do the Chinese families look for a good deli?

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  20. That was very nicely written! I think Christmas has become a lot more commercialized than it should be. I still look forward to it every year though, the lights, sounds and just the over all festive mood. But it’s true what they say it’s more for the kids. They’re the happiest during Christmas =)

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    • I agree with you that Christmas has become commericalised. But there is always room for quiet Christmas dinners to celebrate and remember the true spirit of the occasion. Kids will be kids…and want presents this time of the year 🙂

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