It’s Beginning to Look Not Even Remotely Like Christmas: Faking Festiveness in Shanghai

Actually I lie.

I live in Shanghai (which, if you ask the Shanghairen, is barely even China but rather its own magnificent autonomous kingdom of wealth and awesomeness) and oh, the shiny accoutrements of the festive season are out in a big way.

Have you seen the giant tree outside Prada on Nanjing Road West? The one that has been decorated with full sized Mini Coopers? You know, the cars? Decked with freaking cars?

Or the waitresses at the hotpot place we had our traditional Christmas lunch at today, wearing plush reindeer antler and Christmas tree hair bands. The red, shiny Merry Christmas signs plastered in the foyer didn’t clash at all with the silver mirror and purple tiger print standard decor.

Over the past month, at the various hotels I’d been shuttled off to for work, I was greeted by increasingly ornate and enormous Christmas trees. The one in Jinan was the hugest, but the one in Nanjing was pink and was next to a guy playing carols on a grand piano in the lobby. I’ll give it credit for that.


Jinan tree

They had this one up in Jinan way back at the beginning of December. Couldn’t wait to start decorating for a festival they didn’t actually celebrate.


Or the plethora of seasonal attire in the boutiques along Nanchang Lu, should you feel a need to deck yourself in boughs of holly.



I fear I’d look like a snowbank if I wore this.


Or the Festivus Ducks down at Tianzifang,  getting ready to deliver lake weed and grains to well behaved children all over the land.



Quack quack quack, happy Festivus to all!


Chez nous, things are low key for Festivus. I had been feeling very homesick and tired and frustrated, worn down by weeks of brutal cold (by Shanghai standards- remember we don’t do central heating here), 3 consecutive weekends of work away in other cities on top of my day job which was going through massive upheavals, and big fat general seasonal malaise.

And by malaise I mean some days I was ready to catch the next flight out to Mexico (or Morocco or Xinjiang or anywhere but here), though I’m not sure how many direct flights there are from Shanghai to Mexico City. Also, Doug might object. I’d have to bring him to the airport too.  It’s hard to make impulsive decisions when you actually have to make, like, arrangements and stuff.

I just had to fight the burning, irrational need to escape, to climb out the window and just keep going until I would hopefully finally feel better.

The [completely fabricated] term ideated defenestration (defenestrative ideation?) would apply here, though given that we are on the 16th floor it would have been a very bad idea to follow through with it.

Shanghai can be horrible and grey and grim in winter, a perfect storm of all the things that can trigger brutal seasonal depression. Mine was getting pretty black and I grew to loathe that big black cloud that insisted on hovering over my head and leaching into my brainwaves.

I tried to battle that big black cloud by tentatively revisiting our neglected kitchen. Comfort food and all. Home and hearth. Nurturing, if only for self preservation.

I opened up a tab for again, long since closed in annoyance (I mean, for fuck’s sake- more goddamn cake-pops? Have you guys no imagination?), ready to daydream new and wondrous edibles that could transport me through their wafting smells into a warmer, gentler place.  I dusted off the oven after a long hiatus and in quick succession made a lovely no-knead spice bread, focaccia and my first round of Xinjiang noodle dough wok tortillas in ages.  We had spicy chicken tacos for Christmas Eve dinner.  I’m nothing if not traditional.


spice bread

Om nom nom.


I decorated the flat as best as I could, trying to make it seem at least somewhat shiny and sparkly and celebratory. I hung tinsel and bobbles on the dead stumps of the old mini-palm trees I killed years ago (but kept because they were great to use as a vertical trellis for my experimental shrub cuttings).



Did you see the very successful experimental shrub cuttings in there? The leaves look like shiny purple-green ribbon candy, ever so festive.


Gerald the Bear and Kevin the Panda agreed to be decked, as it were, with Christmas bells and decorative stockings and tiny little fake presents that were significantly more elegantly wrapped than our actual gifts (see below: yes, we’re utilitarian that way. I gave Doug the red shopping bag; he gave me the box mine was delivered in). Sometimes I wish I could be motivated enough to actually gift wrap the gifts, but does one really need to gift wrap 300 kuai worth of imported chocolate? I think not.



The Festivus Fairy came! And no, Doug didn’t buy me a crate of Chardonnay, though I wouldn’t have sent it back if he had.


After weeks of grim, grey, cold, rainy days, Christmas has been lovely and bright and mild. We treated ourselves to a massive feast at our favourite hotpot place (the one where the waitresses wore little antlers or Christmas trees on their heads), then walked home the long way, enjoying the bright sunlight, ducking down quieter lanes and side streets. Lots of shop windows wished us a Merry Chlistmas or were brightened by Santa hats. There was tinsel and sparkly things.

I actually felt almost good again.



Nothing says Christmas lunch like a bowl full of raw greens ready to be dunked into a Sichuan hotpot.


On the way home, we popped into Yongkang Lu for French tarts and Oregon craft beers. Shanghai is forgiving that way: when you need to briefly step out of China (for your own mental health), it provides little side exits for you to pop into, to stock up on things that are familiar and comforting and which help you to feel just a little bit more connected to your former life back home, to your family, to your own particular cultural taste buds.



You can almost smell the evergreen forests of home!


That way, when you step back out again, you’re ready for another day full of salted eels and unheated classrooms. As ready as one can ever be.




Happy Festivus, y’all! May the Festivus Ducks bring you what your heart cries out for, whether it be mops or eels or central heating and double glazed windows.

How did you celebrate (if you do)?

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.