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Whether they traditionally celebrate Christmas back home or focus on ringing in a new year, expats generally celebrate the season in Shanghai with family and friends. Many go traveling.

Though many countries of Christian heritage have different, colorful interpretations of the holiday, in other countries New Year is more important. Six expats talk about this season in Australia, Brazil, France, India, Japan and the United States - and how they will celebrate in China.

Ana Steyer has been in Shanghai for nearly two and a half years. At Christmas time the Brazilian lady and her family usually go traveling. Last year it was Thailand, this time it's Australia.

"It's always strange being abroad at Christmas time, hotels have a cold atmosphere," says Steyer from Porto Allegre. "In Brazil, summer is just around the corner from Christmas. The days are getting longer, kids are getting ready for the summer holidays and many outdoor activities are going on."

On Christmas Day families go down to the beach for fireworks and a good churrasco - a BBQ cooked on skewers. Christmas Eve dinners feature turkey or ham, rice, salads and fruit.

Other features of Brazilian festivities are colored by its diverse population.

In southern Brazil, for example, a place with strong influence from German and Italian immigrants, Christmas celebration resembles the ones from Europe. Christmas Eve dinner is not complete without panettone - an Italian Christmas cake. Catholics also attend missa do galo or midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

Despite being away from home, however, Steyer still likes to keep Christmas traditions. "In Shanghai I always have a tree and my house completely decorated," she says, adding that there are some advantages to being in Shanghai at this time. "It's a wonderful opportunity to travel around countries in the area, and to be with my family to see how other cultures celebrate Christmas."

As in Brazil, Christmas in Australia is also celebrated in summer. Alex Harper, a Sydney newcomer to Shanghai, remembers fondly Christ-mases on the beach. "Basically you spend the whole day on the beach, with loads of food, barbecue, surfing, and family and friends," he says.

Harper is public relations manager for the Bund Brewery and a part-time Mandarin student. On being in Shanghai at Christmas he says, "It's quite a strange experience since I'm here with a whole bunch of new people."

He himself has plenty lined up. "A friend of mine has an apartment near Xintiandi, so we're going to throw a private party for 20 of our mates there."

He's also brought some Australian traditions with him. "We'll play games like Chris Cringle - a mystery present-giving thing where everyone coming puts their name in a hat. You pull a name out of it and buy that person a present. The receiver doesn't know who gave them the present but the buyer does."

He's also planned ahead for New Year's Day. "I've got a five-course dinner at New Heights booked," he says. But when asked where is the best place in Shanghai for Christmas, he comments, "The best place is with your mates."

Japan's New Year, or Shogatsu, is the biggest festival of the year. In ancient times Shogatsu was celebrated in February in parallel with Chinese Spring Festival, which falls on February 7 this year, but when Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1873, this changed to January 1.

The meaning behind the celebration of New Year is to leave the old behind and to welcome the new. Homes and entrance gates are decorated with kadomatsu made of pine, bamboo and plum tree boughs, clothes are cleaned and so are houses, from top to bottom.

Takanori Tsuruoka is a language student at Fudan University, and he's been in Shanghai for 10 months. For him, New Year is a time to spend with family, while Christmas is a time to spend with friends and alcohol - the exact opposite of most observances in the West.

Tsuruoka usually celebrates New Year with his family. in Chiba City. "We all sit around a kotatsu, a big round table with a built-in heater underneath, we toast our legs on the heater, talk and eat New Year's dinner.

"The most traditional New Year's foods are mochi, a Japanese rice cake similar to Chinese niangao, - in a soup. We also have osechi, a set of dishes like a bento box with rice, fish paste, seaweed and dates.

"We stay up late into the night watching a marathon song contest on TV. The Red and White Song Contest has now become Japan's must popular program on New Year's Eve. We also visit shrines and pray for our hopes for the New Year."

This New Year, however, Tsuruoka plans travel in the Philippines "because it's near, it's different and it's warm."

Unlike European and other traditionally Christian countries, India has no indigenous tradition of celebrating Christmas. Amar Urhekar, managing director of a health-care company, finds instead that China has more Christmas spirit than India.

"Christmas is a much larger, more commercial thing here," says the man from Mumbai. "You can see decorations everywhere. I never used to celebrate it in India, but in Shanghai I've started to get a small Christmas tree every year.

"In India the big celebration of the year is Diwali in November. That is a traditional religious festival," he continues. "Apart from that, New Year's Eve is also a big event. Though there is no religious meaning in New Year, it's a chance to party, eat good food, and be with friends and family."

The younger generation may go bar hopping in big groups, while older people will stay at home and watch TV with the countdown to midnight.

Having been in Shanghai for three and a half years, Urhekar is no longer particularly excited about the season. It is, however, a chance to travel around China. Since it's not a Chinese national holiday, it won't be so crowded, he says.

This year he and his wife will visit Kunming and Lijiang in Yunnan Province and Dalian in Liaoning Province.

However, they will be back for New Year's Eve. "I'm still not deciding what to do for New Year's Day in Shanghai," he says. "The options are either parties at clubs like Park 97 or Attica, or Indian community gatherings at one of the big Indian restaurants like Vedas or Bukhara."

For Jennifer Smith from Dallas, Texas, Christmas in the southern United States is deeply associated with warmth and family.

For Smith, a freelance writer, Christmas ushers in warm hues of red and green, deeply embedded scents of evergreen, spiced cider and homemade pies and the blend of twinkly lights in the darkness of a living room.

"This holiday is steeped with rich family traditions and is the source of many of my fondest childhood memories," she says. "Growing up Christmas was all about baking gingerbread men and fruitcake cookies with my mother; visits from my older six siblings and their families; late-night gatherings around old home movies filled with laughter, singing and games; plus presents and visiting neighbors to share the fun and food."

These are also traditions that she has passed on to her own family.

"My favorite Christmas memories will remain those shared with my own little family. My husband dressed up as Santa and hurrying my children to bed so he could fill stockings; making holiday crafts and looking at the neighborhood Christmas lights; the Christmas Eve church service followed by cocoa around the fire, then Christmas music and reading the bible.

"So many traditions, so much fun, so many memories, so much sugar, so much love!"
Margeurite Sdrigotti, an English and French teacher, has been in Shanghai for two years. The Frenchwoman from Nantes also tries to keep celebrations alive in Shanghai.

Not only has she decorated her home, but she will also visit a local center for young, handicapped people in Puxi taking them presents and some festive cheer.

"Christmas is a time to share joy with the underprivileged," she says. "In France, the manger scene is a central part of the celebrations. Baby Jesus and the three wise men are put into the scene on December 24 and January 7 respectively, and friends and families get together to show each other their manger scenes."

Currently it's popular, especially in northeastern France, for markets to have "live mangers" with real animals and people. Families will make a day of visiting these mangers, drinking hot wine and eating crepes.

On Christmas Eve, a large log is placed in the fireplace to burn all night long. "This may have been the inspiration for la bouche de Noel or the yule log cake," she says. "It's made with ice cream or chocolate cake, shaped like a log, covered in chocolate, and often with a cream filling. Families will eat late after going to midnight mass, their dinner may be turkey, chestnuts, oysters, salmon with a white butter sauce and la bouche de Noel."

Sdrigotti comments that being in Shanghai over Christmas is very different from being in France. "First, not everybody is celebrating it and there are no live manger scenes here. Also in France it's such a big commercial thing with everybody busy buying, especially chocolate, which isn't so much the case here."

Still she is planning activities for the special season. "I will go to a candlelight service at the Community Center Shanghai, followed by Christmas dinner with a homemade la bouche Noel, and on New Year's Day I'm planning a party with friends."

(Shanghai Daily December 21, 2007)

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