Día de Muertos (and Halloween)

Another spooky season is upon us, which, of course, has me reflecting on last year’s festivities, and since last year was our first full year in Mexico, I remember having a lot of questions regarding two very colorful (yet slightly morbid) holidays that happen to take place in the same fun-filled week. Thankfully, we had a brilliant education last year, and now I’m ready to share all that I learned! So, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how Halloween and Día de Muertos are celebrated south of the border, well, you’re in for a treat (see what I did there?) because this post is about to get frightening(ly in-depth). Mwahaha!

Halloween in Mexico

So, first off, whenever we would ask locals about Halloween in Mexico, they’d typically tell us that it’s not really celebrated…but I beg to disagree. Grocery stores start selling costumes and decorations in September, many restaurants have jack-o-lanterns and spiders welcoming their guests, and last year on Halloween (and several days on either side of it) I witnessed creepy clowns, Squid Game contestants, and many other characters walking down the street. There are also Halloween-themed events advertised for both kids and adults all month long, so whether it’s gimmicky or not, I sense a bit of a celebration. Of course, we’ve also been told that the closer you get to the US border, the more Halloween-y it will feel. Places like Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, and Tijuana have the most going on, but even down here in GDL, the global holiday influence is still felt. However, I also can’t deny that there is a lot more buzz around the infamous Day of the Dead, and rightly so.

Día de Muertos

With such a sinister sounding name, it’s easy to connect the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween to this particular holiday, but in reality, Día de Muertos seems to have more in common with the All Saints’ Day we experienced in Poland or with China’s Tomb Sweeping Day. The holiday’s purpose is to honor family members who have since passed, much like other memorial holidays around the world. In fact, Día de Muertos is partially connected to Catholicism, thus the same date as All Saints’ Day; however, there’s also an indigenous twist in Mexico’s version of remembrance. Origins and comparisons aside, the first thing that really confused me was actually the name itself. I was constantly hearing and seeing both Día de Muertos and Día de los Muertos…so which should I be using?! Apparently, no importa, both are used, both are correct. It’s a pick your own poison sort of thing.

The next thing we learned was that Día de Muertos is actually días, plural. The holiday consists of two very important days/celebrations, one on November first and one on November second (of course, like other holidays, the celebrating really stretches throughout the whole week), but the significance of these two days is really interesting. November first is the day when the spirits and souls of innocents (or children) are remembered and honored. This day was a bit quieter and included a lot more white flowers (as opposed to the usual gold) and decorations especially for kids. For example, one of the tombs we saw had an array of toy cars and candy set out. The next day, November second, is the big day, the day when all the other ancestors are to be remembered and celebrated, with even more flowers and special treats, of course.

So how does one celebrate Día de Muertos?

Well, like every other major holiday, there are lots of regional differences and personal preferences at play, but a few of the more traditional elements include cleaning and decorating the tombs/graves of your ancestors, making an ofrenda (or alter) in your home for more recently lost family members, and having a party to celebrate the circle of life in general. Last year, Tucker and I visited two cemeteries to see some of the tomb cleaning and decorating for ourselves, and we were absolutely amazed! Even in a large, modern city (which usually has fewer traditionalists) and even with some of the oldest cemeteries (whose descendants might also be gone at this point), not to mention a pandemic to contend with, people really went all out! Famous Jaliscienses (people from Jalisco) had the most going on with elaborate flower carpets, rows and rows of candles, and a huge amount of papel picado (the colorful paper flags), but due to the ongoing Covid battle, former nurses and doctors were also highly celebrated, as were all the other lucky souls who still have devoted family members living in the city.

The tombs are often set up much the same as the alters at home. Flowers are a must, specifically cempasúchiles (marigolds) because their bright color and strong scent help guide spirits back for the night. This is the indigenous twist I was mentioning earlier: the ancient belief was that only on this night and only if your family put up an alter for you could your spirit come back to Earth and enjoy the party. This is also why the alters are often adorned with the favorite foods, drinks, and other preferences of those who have passed – something for them to enjoy on their journey. Sometimes it’s real food and drink left out (which is usually eaten by the living family members at some point), but sometimes the alters are decorated with figurines of all the ancestors’ favorites, which you can find at pop-up markets all month long: tiny plates of tacos el pastor, little bottles of tequila, itty-bitty cigarettes, etc. If someone loved it, you can find it in miniature. Sugar skulls with the names of those who have passed are also common for the ofrendas, but today, kids often want their own names put on them, further emphasizing that this celebration is for both those who are gone and those who remain.

While the decorations and alters might be the most eye-catching parts of Día de Muertos celebrations, the most memorable part, for me, was the party atmosphere. There is nothing creepy or sad about this particular holiday. It is all joy; music is everywhere, families hugging, kids playing, even in the cemeteries themselves. And once the alters and ancestors are taken care of, more partying takes place in the form of parades, mariachi performances, and snacks for all (including the infamous pan de muerto, a sweet bread in the shape of crossbones). Sometimes in pictures, Día de Muertos can look like an homage to death with all the skeletons and tombs, but in reality, it is a celebration of life and family, and it’s something I’m very much looking forward to celebrating in person once again.

Fun Facts: US Presidents Edition

Lots of holidays this week, no? Pączki Day, Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, and on Monday, Presidents’ Day! Yay! I know you probably feel like you’ve heard enough about US politics to last you a lifetime, but since I love a good theme AND I actually read a really interesting book about the US presidents last year, I thought I’d post some fun facts about our chief executives throughout the years. I promise these are solely amusing trivia tidbits – nothing that will make you want to smash your head against the wall or angrily take to Facebook.

Washington strikes me as a cat’s eye man.

1 – George Washington was an avid marble player.

2 – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same oddly fitting day: July 4th, 1826. James Monroe also died on July 4th (five years later in 1831).

3 – Thomas Jefferson loved pasta and designed and built his own “macaroni machine”.

Macaroni machine or torture device?

4 – James Madison was the shortest president (Lincoln was the tallest).

5 – James Monroe ran uncontested in 1820 ushering in the “The Era of Good Feelings”.

6 – John Q Adams liked to swim naked across the Potomac.

7 – Andrew Jackson was known for dueling and occasionally taking a bullet for his wife’s honor.

8 – Martin Van Buren had the nickname “Old Kinderhook”, which many believe is where we get the expression “O.K.”

9 – William Harrison got sick after his long, outdoor inaugural address and died after only 1 month in office.

Polk’s No Fun Zone

10 – John Tyler was called “His Accidency” as he was the first “Act of God” president.

11 – James Polk banned alcohol and dancing (among other things) from the White House.

12 – Zachary Taylor laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument while snacking on cherries and milk, which might have given him the bacterial infection that eventually killed him.

13 – Millard Fillmore married his teacher, Abigail Powers.

14 – Franklin Pierce was friends with Nathanial Hawthorne.

15 – James Buchanan never married, the only president thus far to remain a bachelor.

16 – Abraham Lincoln had the legislation for creating the Secret Service agency on his desk the night he was assassinated (although at the time it was an agency meant to stop counterfeiting, not bullets).

You know what they say about hindsight…

17 – Andrew Johnson’s wife, Eliza McCardle, taught him how to write.

18 – Ulysses Grant hated wearing uniforms and received many demerits during his time at West Point.

19 – Rutherford Hayes and his wife Lucy were given a Siamese cat from Bangkok, it was the first Siamese cat in the US.

The Carters also had a Siamese cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang.

20 – James Garfield was shot by an assassin in July 1881, but died 79 days later due to the misuse of the newly-invented metal detector as well as unsanitary conditions.

21 – Chester Arthur had Louis Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. redecorate the White House.

22 – Grover Cleveland was distantly related to the guy whom the city of Cleveland was named after.

23 – Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have his voice recorded.

24 – Grover Cleveland (again): after being diagnosed with mouth cancer, he had part of his upper jaw removed in a clandestine operation on a yacht.  

25 – William McKinley used to be on the $500 bill, which was last printed in 1934.

Puts those Benjamins to shame!

26 – Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest person to assume the role of president at age 42.

27 – William Taft might have never gotten stuck in a bathtub, but he did install custom-made tubs throughout the White House and various US ships.  

There is just something so bizarre with this…

28 – Woodrow Wilson kept a flock of sheep on the White House lawn.

29 – William Harding’s death might have been caused by an intentional poisoning.

30 – Calvin Coolidge was sworn into office by his father, an official notary public. Also, Coolidge was the only president (thus far) to be born on the 4th of July.

31 – Herbert Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi.

32 – Franklin Roosevelt was extremely passionate about his hobby of stamp-collecting. (Bonus fact: FDR’s wife Eleanor once had the KKK put out a $25,000 reward for her assassination.) 

33 – Harry Truman’s solo initial “S” was given to represent both of his grandfathers: Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young.

34 – Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the famous presidential getaway from Shangri-La to Camp David. He didn’t want to sound too fancy.

35 – John Kennedy was once marooned on an island and sent a successful SOS message via coconut in order to be rescued.

SOS! -JFK

36 – Lyndon Johnson had to deal with the assassinations of JFK, MLK Jr. and Robert Kennedy although he, himself, was never targeted.

37 – Richard Nixon’s daughter, Julie, married the grandson of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

38 – Gerald Ford is the only person to have been both vice president and president without ever being elected by the public/Electoral College.

Joan Quigley, Reagan’s astrologer. The 80s must have been wild.

39 – Jimmy Carter was the first president born in a hospital.

40 – Ronald Reagan frequently consulted with an astrologist during his presidency, even keeping a calendar of “good” and “bad” days. Somehow the assassination attempt just wasn’t in the signs…

41 – George H W Bush considered asking Clint Eastwood to be his running mate in 1988.

42 – Bill Clinton has won two Grammy Awards (other presidential Grammy recipients include Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama).

43 – George W Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were the first First Family twins.

44 – Barack Obama’s first job was as an ice-cream scooper at Baskin Robbins.

45 – Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, is from Novo Mesto, Slovenia (formerly a part of Yugoslavia) in Central Europe.

Such a good boy!

46 – Joe Biden’s German shepherd, Major, is the first rescue dog to reside in the White House.

Southeast Asia and Chinese New Year

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Riding in a songthaew

There are so many things to love about being a teacher, but one that always stands out (even to non-teachers) are the breaks we often get. For me, as a university teacher in China, I was lucky enough to have a little over six weeks off in between semesters this year! Unfortunately, that’s not the norm (it just so happened that Chinese New Year fell quite late this year), but however it happened, I’m so glad it did because Tucker and I were able to take one incredible trip last month! In fact, this was our most involved trip to date, as it linked together several professional events in addition to the typical, touristy ones and ultimately involved us being away from home for 30 days. The planning was…interesting, as neither of us had ever been to Southeast Asia before, I had to be prepared for several work events throughout the trip, and it happened to take place over the biggest holiday of the region. Basically, we had no idea how it would turn out, but we were excited to find out!

Thailand

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View from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Our first stop was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which was the location for the East Asia/Pacific Fellows Midyear Meeting. I’m actually a little ashamed to say that I had never heard of Chiang Mai before finding out that was where the midyear would be because it is a city that should definitely be on any travel-nerd’s radar! It’s located in Northern Thailand, not too far from the Myanmar border and is a fairly popular location for backpackers. Being solidly in Southeast Asia, and inland no less, it was quite warm even in January. About 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30C) when we flew in, which was quite a shock when the week before we were in Harbin, China chilling out at -15F (-25C), but the overall atmosphere of Chiang Mai was anything but stifling. I read a bit about Thailand and Thai culture before we left, and one of the things that stuck out while we were there was the peacefulness and serenity of the people. Due to a largely Buddhist population, the people of Thailand try to conduct their lives with as little conflict as possible. Surprisingly, this was something that was easily felt and observed even in our few short weeks in the country.

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Sharing some yummy treats

Honestly, there are so many things I could share about our time in Chiang Mai! Other than getting to meet up with all the EAP Fellows again, bond through the sharing of meals, drinks, and stories, and attend/present at the exceptional Thai TESOL conference, we were able to fit in some of the most incredible cultural experiences as well! We took a Thai cooking class, something that was extremely out of my comfort zone (although I think I held my own! My Pad Thai was delicious, and I didn’t catch anything on fire!), we visited two elephant sanctuaries and learned more about the history and treatment of elephants in the region, and we walked in and around countess wats picking up phrases and gestures that we’ll likely use for quite awhile (even if they’re a little out of place in China). Ultimately, it was a busy, but extraordinarily rewarding week.

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Floating market

After the meeting and conference were checked off our list, we headed down to Bangkok via an overnight train. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love overnight trains! This is the sixth we’ve been on, and I have yet to be disappointed! Such a great experience, very affordable, and the stories are fantastic! I should write a “Stories from Overnight Trains” post at some point, but for now, I’ll focus on Bangkok. Most people already know about this Thai city; it’s the capital and a jumping off point for many destinations in SE Asia. I’ll admit that at first, I thought it was just another big city: similar to Beijing, New York, etc. However, the longer we were there, the more I came to like it. There is truly something for everyone – in fact, almost too much of everything! We had a great time with the vast array of transportation options, took in some sights (unique skyscrapers, centuries-old wats, and even a lunar eclipse), and, of course, we also ate a lot of delicious food! That is, until Tucker had some cashew apples from a street vendor – that wasn’t a pleasant 24 hours for him!

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Incredible detail!

Cambodia

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Sunrise over Angkor Wat

From Bangkok, we took a 6 hour bus ride to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is the nearest city to the famous Angkor Wat complex. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Angkor Wat mentioned in English language textbooks (usually in the chapter on “travel”), and quite possibly because of this, it has long been a place on my must-see list. Now that I have finally seen the breathtaking Angkor Wat in person, I can honestly say that the pictures do not even come close to doing it justice. When we were in Europe I was always so impressed with how old things were. For Americans, 300 years old seems crazy – in Europe it’s normal, in Asia, it’s downright modern. The temples and statues in the complex were built over 900 years ago, a time that is difficult for me to fully imagine outside of the strings of dates and events I studied for university exams. Seeing it in person, and actually being allowed to walk on it, touch it, and understand the amount of effort it must have taken to build, was all truly amazing.

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The place to be in Siem Reap

The city of Siem Reap was really awesome as well although very different from temples of Angkor Wat. Instead of pushy monkeys, we encountered pushy tuk-tuk drivers (touristy areas definitely have their drawbacks). However, there’s a really fun Pub Street at the center of town, where we tried local Cambodian dishes like Amok (a delicious coconut and lime curry dish) and Lok Lak (a peppery beef salad) and drank 50 cent draft beers several nights during our stay. Siem Reap is actually where we found ourselves for the Super Bowl this year, and luckily Tucker quickly sleuthed out, a nearby, American-owned bar that was hosting a party…at 6am (which is when the game began for us). So, of course, we had unlimited pizza, wings, and beer (maybe a little too much) for breakfast, and made some new American, Canadian, and German friends while watching the Eagles pull out a win. Unfortunately the owner was from Boston, so it was a bit of a hard loss for him. I’m just thankful it wasn’t as doom and gloom as last year’s gathering in Atlanta. Still hurts Tucker a bit to talk about it.

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Mekong sunrise

After Siem Reap, we took another bus down to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. My intention for visiting Phnom Penh was to attend and present at the Cam TESOL conference that was being held there, which was a fantastic experience, but we definitely enjoyed more than just the conference and further Fellow company. We took many breezy walks along the Mekong River, had hour long Khmer massages for $8, and again, ate some of the best food I’ve had in a long time! France actually has a long history with Cambodia, and it seems like their culinary flare has definitely rubbed off on the Cambodian population. One restaurant we stumbled upon, La Provence, was a bit off the well-beaten tourist track, but the food we had there was absolutely incredible! There were no menus (we ordered off a chalkboard) and everything was in French, but it was easily my favorite meal of the trip. It’s been a few weeks now, and we’re still regularly talking about it.

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Wat Phnom

Hong Kong

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Aviary friend

Now that my professional duties were officially over and the holidays (Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year) were upon us, we headed to our next location: Hong Kong. We flew into Hong Kong and immediately felt the Britishness of it. Not only were we back on the left side of the road (Thailand also drives on the left), but we took a double-decker bus from the airport to our hostel. I’d like to say that I refrained from speaking in a British accent, but that would totally be a lie – I immediately went into Harry Potter mode when I saw the buses…Tucker looked a little ashamed. But in addition to the British influence, we also felt like we were getting closer to home as we listened to any and all announcements in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. HK was one of the places Tucker was looking forward to the most, so he lead the way as we wound our way around the hilly island. Hong Kong Park with its jungle-y feel, beautiful water features, and unexpected aviary was a highlight for us. As was the double-decker tram that ran the length of the city. We had lots of plans for our time in Hong Kong. Many of them were successful (like eating and drinking all the HK specialties, taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, and visiting Hong Kong Disneyland), but as to be expected, some things didn’t quite go as planned.

Chinese New Year

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Victoria Harbor

We really didn’t give much thought to Chinese New Year as we were planning our trip because, honestly, we didn’t really know what it would be like either way, so we figured we’d just wing it. However, perhaps we should have thought a little more about it…something about hindsight, right? Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in China (including Hong Kong), and unlike our New Year, it’s not really a one day event. Rather, the whole country prepares for days (by shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.) and then takes several days off – all together, all 1.3 billion of them (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), but really, a lot of people were “on vacation” just like we were. Because of the larger-than-usual number of people on holiday in Hong Kong, there were a few things on our list that we opted to forego (rather than spending way too much time or money). This included riding the tram up to Victoria Peak and taking a trip over to the island of Macau for some Portuguese architecture and maybe a casino or two. I guess we’ll just have to take another trip down to Hong Kong soon!

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Hong Kong street market

Other than the crowds of happy, holiday-enjoying people, we saw many Chinese New Year markets pop-up. These markets sold all sorts of festival treats like candied Hawthorne, roasted corn, and cotton candy. They also had booths set up where students (presumably for an economics class) sold different New Year novelty items (stuffed animals, pinwheels, t-shirts, etc,). We were surprised to see that about a fourth of each market was filled with various plants and flowers, which we now know are common gifts to bring to a New Year’s Eve dinner/reunion. Not only the markets, but the entire city was decorated for the New Year – red lanterns were everywhere along with traditional paper cuttings, dog statues (we’ve transitioned from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog, by the way), and many signs wishing everyone a happy and prosperous New Year. It was very much like the lead up to Christmas, including a parade! On New Year’s Eve we were lucky enough to catch a parade on the Kowloon side of HK. There were some differences to be sure, but more similarities, I think: large balloon animals, floats with glitter and bright lights, marching bands, etc. We even saw the dancing Chinese dragons! It was really awesome to be so immersed in the festivities – I had thought it would be a little boring for us, as the holiday is said to be very family-oriented (and mostly celebrated at home), but being in Hong Kong and hearing all the “Gong Xi Fa Cai”s, I felt like we were in the middle of everything!

Guangzhou

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Adorable dim sum

The last stop on our itinerary was a little further up the Pearl River Delta, in the city of Guangzhou. Guangzhou used to be called Canton and is China’s third largest city. It’s known for it delicious food, including dim sum (a plethora of bite-sized foods like dumplings and steamed buns often served with all you can drink tea). Now that the holiday was over, we naively thought things would return to normal. We were quickly proven wrong when we arrived at our pre-booked hostel and were told that they didn’t have a room for us because they oversold our room for the holiday. Fortunately, we had something similar happen in Ukraine and totally didn’t panic. We used their WiFi (they were really kind and happily celebrating the New Year, giving us cherry tomatoes and candies to snack on while we figured this out), and we were able to secure a hotel room not too far away. Although many stores and restaurants were closed for the holiday (it’s actually still pretty unclear what sorts of things remained open and when the others would do so – we’re now a week into the New Year and still many things are closed by us!), we were able visit a beautiful orchid garden, treat ourselves to some amazing dim sum, and watch the light show on the skyscrapers from a bridge over the Pearl River. We had a lovely, albeit short, time in Guangzhou, but luckily it’s only a train ride away!

So after 30 days, almost 5000 miles traversed, and innumerable memories made, we made it back to Hefei in one piece. I truly can’t say it enough: I am so grateful for the opportunities Tucker and I have been afforded these past few years. I’m so appreciative of the time we’ve been able to spend together, the people we’ve been able to meet, and the information and perspective we are continually gaining through these experiences. Now it’s time to start the next semester, and I can’t wait to hear what all my students did during their six week break!

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Best travel partner ever!

Holiday Season in Hefei, China!

25551909_10215409724504614_4922483156100992958_n (1)Happy holidays from Hefei! Tucker and I are now into our fifth month of living in China and have just made it through our first holiday season in the Far East. China is the first country we’ve lived in that doesn’t celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, so we were pretty curious to see what it would be like over here. I’ve collected about a month’s worth of holiday observations to share with everyone, so let’s get to it!

25442748_10215324111684347_2436088416400639503_n (1)The Lead Up: Holiday decorations were everywhere! Early in December we started noticing Christmas decorations around the city: large, lighted trees, festive window stickers, red bows, etc. Our local supermarkets put up displays and seasonal aisles that sold everything from ornaments and stuffed Rudolphs to full-sized Santa animatronics (only mildly creepy). I had a great time buying a new set of Christmas décor (we now have a set on three separate continents) for our apartment here: stockings, lights, Santa hats, a small tree, etc. We were also able to find some seasonal treats like Andes candies, hot cocoa, and Ferrero Rochers as well. The malls were probably the biggest Christmas perpetrators with decorations on just about every store front, staircase, and atrium. People were often lined up to get their pictures with Santa or to enter the “Secret Wonderland”, which to us looked like a small, dark room with tons of white Christmas lights on the ceiling. Of course, many American chains like Starbucks and Dairy Queen also had their usual holiday specials advertised in the usual places, and Christmas music (particularly Jingle Bells) could be heard in most stores and restaurants throughout the month.

Christmas Eve: The word for Christmas Eve in Chinese is “Ping’an Ye”, which sort of sounds like “pingguo” (apple), so on Christmas Eve many Chinese people give apples as gifts to their friends and neighbors. The stores sell brightly wrapped apples just for this occasion, and if you tell a Chinese person that we, in fact, don’t have this tradition (despite the fact that it stems entirely from a play on Chinese words), they will be extremely surprised. Other than the apples, many Chinese Christians also go to church on Christmas Eve. In fact, since Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday this year, it was more popular for local church services than Christmas Day. However, the religious facet of Christmas is not as well-known as some of the more commercial aspects. For example, when I asked the students in the English Corner what American Christmas traditions they knew, they stuck to things like presents, Santa Claus, and holiday movies. It was really surprising to us which things they had heard of and which things are just not associated with Christmas for them. Leaving Santa cookies, for example, was something they had not heard of, but during Chinese New Year they have a similar tradition, which I can’t wait to be a part of!

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Christmas Day: Christmas Day is not a national holiday in China; therefore, people (regardless of religion, nationality, etc.) do not get the day off. I was lucky to not have classes that day, but I still got many work-related emails and had to go pick up my paycheck (on Christmas Day!!). When I told my colleagues and students what I planned to do on Christmas, which was to spend the whole day in my pajamas watching the Yule Log on YouTube, they were very surprised. In China, Christmas is the biggest shopping day of the year. Many people (especially the younger generations) spend the day going to the movies or out to eat, and then out shopping for gifts for each other or for their significant others. Christmas Day for the majority of Chinese people is more like another Valentine’s Day, only with slightly different characters. I took no part in the holiday shopping as I can only imagine what the crowds were like, but I did enjoy my fair share of Christmas gifts/messages. On WeChat, a Chinese social media app, I received over a hundred holiday messages from students, coworkers, and friends I’ve met over the last few months. I read “Merry Christmas” and “Sheng Dan Kuai Le” many times over the holiday and was blown away by the effort so many people put into making my Christmas Day a little more cheerful.

 

New Year’s Eve: New Year’s Eve, as we know it, refers to midnight on January 1st, but in China that’s only a minor New Year. Their longest holiday and biggest celebration is for the Lunar New Year, which will be in February this year (more on this later, I imagine). For our piddly little New Year, there was a bit less going on in Hefei than in other Chinese cities. We have signs and decorations wishing everyone a “Happy 2018” and from what I could tell, there were many parties downtown as well, but the large celebrations are reserved for China’s mega cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, etc. We ended up watching a live stream from Hong Kong and were surprised that the only fireworks we heard were coming from the laptop. I suppose since we live on a university campus and China, in general, is really strict about air pollution, local fireworks seem to be rare on New Year’s Eve. I have a feeling this might not hold true for Lunar New Year though. Can’t wait to find out! Happy 2018!

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Christmastime in Poland

Tucker and I have now been in Poland for over three months, and one of my favorite things about being here long-term is getting to see how people in Poland celebrate the holidays! We’ve been through several Polish-exclusive holidays (like All Saint’s Day, Andrzejki, etc.) and shared our American customs for holidays like Thanksgiving, but Christmas is the first holiday that both countries have in common, and it’s a big one. We had read and heard about many Polish Christmas traditions, but experiencing them was so much better! I didn’t take near enough photos, but here is my written description of our Polish Christmas:

Mikolajki – The Christmas season in Poland, much like in the US, lasts more than just a few days. We started seeing Christmas decorations in mid-November – there’s no Thanksgiving here, so no one fights over when to start decorating! There are also a few extra days of Christmas-related celebrations, such as Mikolaijki. Mikolaijki (or Saint Nickolas’ Day) is associated with Santa and seems to be mainly celebrated with children in school. Typically games are played, songs are sung, and children receive gifts of candy or sweets. As an adult, it doesn’t mean quite as much as we all still had to go to work, but it’s certainly a fun way to begin the holiday season.

Wigilia – Next is Wigilia (or Christmas Eve), which is the main day of Polish celebrations. Most people work half-days on Christmas Eve, and celebrate with their families in the evening and for the next few days. There are many articles, videos, etc. describing some of the customs Polish families observe on this evening, but it really differs from family to family. Some traditions include starting the evening meal after the first star can be seen, putting hay under the tablecloth, and always leaving an empty chair at the table for an unexpected guest. These particular traditions were ones we read about, but the families we celebrated with this year, didn’t observe them. Perhaps they are a little antiquated, like caroling in the US – we talk about it, but I’ve never seen it.

For our Wigilia, we were invited by our friend, Mateusz (who is also our Polish teacher) to his family’s house in Łask, Poland. Łask is a small town about 30 minutes outside Łódź, which allowed us to experience not only a Polish Christmas, but also Polish life outside the city. When we arrived, we were joined by Mateusz’s mom, brother, and brother’s girlfriend. The six of us then sat down for a truly amazing homemade Polish meal. There are typically 12 dishes served for Wigilia, and they usually only appear on Polish tables once a year. We had mushroom soup, cabbage pierogies with mushroom sauce, carp, cod, Greek fish, herring in a milk broth with potatoes, barscht, and I (alone) was also given a croquette (since I’m not a big ryby-eater). Traditionally, there is no meat served on Christmas Eve – fish obviously doesn’t count. To drink we had homemade wine, dried fruit compote, eggnog (made by Tucker), and ajerkoniak (Poland’s much stronger version of eggnog). For dessert there was sernik (cheesecake), szarlotka (apple pie), makowiec (poppy seed cake roll), and a very delicious cream/custard cake.

The food was delicious and unlike anything we had had before, but most exciting was the company. We got to use our very minimal Polish (plus our brilliant translator, Mateusz) to talk about food, family, and the differences between life in the US and Poland. We were also able to experience the feeling of family while we were there: everyone helping to clear the table, laughing and poking fun at each other, etc . It was very fun for us to see how Polish family members interact. Perhaps not so shockingly, it’s very much like in the US (and I suspect in most families worldwide). After dinner and conversation, we walked around the city of Łask listening to stories about the town’s history and asking a variety of Poland-related questions. Eventually, it was time to go home and open up our presents! In Poland, presents are opened on Christmas Eve, so in an effort to be both Polish and American, Tucker and I opened our gifts just after midnight (technically on the 25th).

Boże Narodzenie – Christmas day in Poland is similar to the day after Christmas in the US: more food and more family! Tucker and I decided to be very American and have steak for breakfast, but later in the day we headed over to my friend (and colleague) Weronika’s apartment for Christmas dinner. Weronika and her family welcomed us on the stairs and we, again, immediately felt like part of the family. We had amazing conversations ranging from German vocabulary to movies of the seventies, played games in English and Polish, and, of course, ate more than seems possible. For dinner we had mushroom soup, beetroot and herring, a variety of dips and sauces (many of which I forgot to ask the names of), bread with butter, and bigos (a sort of cabbage and meat stew). Everything, very typical in Poland, was again homemade: even the cakes and pierniczki (gingerbread cookies) we had for dessert. It’s really getting difficult to defend our lazy American habits! Sadly, after the wine and cookies, we had to say “dobranoc” and head back home to our empty apartment. Christmas is a difficult time to be away from family, but our incredibly generous Polish friends made sure that not only did we learn about how they celebrate the holidays, but that we felt like we were a part of them. Tucker and I are so thankful for the people we have met here in Poland and can’t wait for them to visit us in the US (or wherever we are) in the future!

Ultimately, Tucker and I had an amazing Polish Christmas, and we’re looking forward to the Nowy Rok and all the other upcoming holidays! I hope you enjoyed reading about our experience this Christmas, and I wish I could share every detail. But for now: Wesołych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!

Merry Christmas!