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Discovering American Christmas

For immigrant parents whose American-born children want to try out mainstream traditions, eating a turkey at Thanksgiving or putting up a tree at Christmas may feel like a duty, an attempt at assimilation.

My parents bought us Christmas stockings, and we decorated our tree with candy canes, ornaments and garlands. But my father wasn’t going to climb onto the roof and stomp around to make us think that Santa Claus had arrived (something my friend’s father did, which may account for why she believed in him until the fourth grade).

As for wish lists, my practical parents didn’t see the point of waiting until Christmas to give us what we wanted. Why shouldn’t we use that warm jacket or play with the Sega video game system as soon as they bought it? My mother, too excited to keep a secret, needed to see our reaction immediately. Such gifts never made it under the tree.

Still, she didn’t want to leave us empty-handed on Christmas morning. After rushing out in my pajamas, I’d tear off the wrapping paper and discover a box of Kleenex or a bottle of multivitamins. My brother and sister received their own treasures, cans of Almond Roca or bags of nuts, whatever we had around the house in bulk that my mother could wrap.

Vanessa Hua Illustrations from Hilary Knight’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a holiday favorite for Vanessa Hua and her family.

Illustrations from Hilary Knight’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a holiday favorite for Vanessa Hua and her family. Photo: Vanessa Hua

For Asian Lunar New Year, birthdays, weddings and other family get-togethers, my parents preferred to give hong bao, red envelopes of cash and checks. Why worry about crowds at the stores or waiting in line to make returns?

And so it fell to my older sister to make Christmas more festive. One year, she covered the door of our living room with green and red wrapping paper and stick-on bows. She also bought us Hilary Knight’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with its illustrations of cavorting bears and a sneaky raccoon that my twins now love. While away at college, when she learned that my brother fervently wanted the “Alex Kidd in Miracle World” video game, she made sure to buy it for him.

After I married, my husband and his family welcomed me into their American traditions. I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. I’d read about classic Christmases in books, seen depictions in movies and glimpsed holidays at friends’ houses, but finally I had insider access.

Each year, my in-laws would adorn their home with an elegant nutcracker and a whimsical wooden decoration that spins from the rising heat of a lit candle, and bring out my husband’s childhood favorite, Robert Barry’s “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree” (which portrays trickle-down economics in action). At a neighborhood holiday potluck, each dessert — the Jell-O ring and the pies — came with its own tub of Cool Whip, which I’d never seen in such abundance.

The yearly Christmas letters were even more eye-opening. On the liquor cabinet, I discovered letters from sorority sisters, former co-workers and friends from their time as expatriates in Europe. Maybe there are Chinese families who write such letters, but I don’t know any.

Christmas letters aren’t the proper medium for the roundabout way in which Chinese often take pride in their children — praise in the form of a complaint. A humble-brag. A father gripes that his daughter needs to do better in math, after she earned a 98 on the last exam. A mother grumbles that her grown son has dinner at home only once a week, because he’s too busy getting promoted.

In the Christmas letters at my in-laws, I found a list of triumphs concerning children and grandchildren and vacations. To my surprise, the letters also disclosed breast cancer, a baseball-size tumor, the death of parents, back surgery, installation of pacemakers, macular degeneration and the removal of a gall bladder.

“He can no longer drive, fish, paint or do most anything he enjoyed in the past,” one woman wrote. “So now (he) is ready to have dinner conversations with anyone about health issues. ... This is what we do when we get older, isn’t it???”

“We figured out the reason people retire is so they have time for all the doctor appointments that come as we age,” another wrote.

“If you need surgery, do it now and not when you are 75!”

The exclamation point haunted me at first, that cheeriness in the face of major life change. I’ve come to see how that openness and honesty can be beneficial. You don’t feel as alone in your suffering if you know that others are going through such tribulations, too.

I look forward to seeing these letters every year now. Christmas or Kwanzaa, Hanukkah or Festivus, may you celebrate longtime tradition or invent your own.

The holidays are bittersweet, too. People remember whom they’ve lost, are reminded of difficult family relationships, and the nonstop cheer can be exhausting.

Despite all that, you’ll find our family in search of Christmas lights, bright with beauty and hope. The twins, overcome with the novelty and excitement of being out at night, giggling as we run through the dark.

Vanessa Hua’s column appears Fridays in Datebook. Email:

© 2015 by Hilary Knight .

Website by Cathy Marshall Websites for

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