As an exchange student from China, I just finished my first (and last) winter break in North Dakota. I finished my finals in late December and checked out of my dorm room to spend the vacation in the city of Grand Forks. Maia Randclev, my best American friend, invited me to spend Christmas with her family, and they tried their best to present to me the various aspects of Americans’ real life by having a traditional Christmas with me.
From this experience, I have come to know that Christmas is not merely about food and gifts. In fact, Christmas is more about sharing with others and appreciating what people already have in their lives. At least, this is how I felt after spending the holiday with the Randclevs.
December 24th—Christmas Eve
We went to church on Christmas Eve to meet other people in the local community and to have a religious celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The Randclevs were serving as volunteers, so Maia, her sister and their parents wore white robes and worked in front of the church.
One of their duties was to hand out little white candles to the other people at the service. When all the man-made lights were off in the church, I could see these little wild fires sparkling and twinkling, tingeing the quiet night with a mild and warm orange. It was an extremely beautiful night, decorated by the Randclevs who were sharing their Christmas spirit with the other people and even unintentionally with me.
After church, it was time for people to go back home to open some gifts from under their Christmas tree. On the way home I was visualizing the scene in which I sat aside without any gift while the gifts in front of this family piled up. I kept telling myself that I was okay with that and I shouldn’t feel awkward; after all, I am not a member of the family. And in China we don’t have this tradition of giving gifts on Christmas Eve anyway.
But to my surprise, there WERE gifts for me!!! There were some carefully wrapped gifts with my name on them sitting under the tree. There was even a large green sock with my name on it hanging above the stove, right next to the family’s own socks.
I was so excited when Maia’s mother told me to be the first person to open a gift because I was the youngest one there. They treated me just like a real family member, and such generosity for me is really unforgettable. I was thankful for they not only shared with me their house and food but also this respect and family connection.
December 25th—Christmas Day
Early in the morning on Christmas Day, Christmas carols were flowing around the Randclevs’ beautiful house. Maia’s mother told me about one of her favorite Christmas albums, “The Canadian Tenors,” saying that Maia bought it and she really loves its songs. She also told me that it is traditional for Americans to play carols throughout the whole Christmas season.
Later, we all drove to Moorhead in Minnesota to gather with the Randclevs’ relatives. There waiting for us were other family members: Maia’s grandma, uncles, aunts and cousins.
Nicole, one of Maia’s aunts, was picking me up there to go skiing with her family in Big Sky, Montana for the next week. She told me I didn’t need to bring anything because they had already prepared all the stuff I needed! I felt a little bit dizzy at that moment – everything seemed to be magical and I couldn’t help wondering if I was in a fairy tale. This was yet another generosity given by the Randclevs, and the start of a whole other chapter of my winter break (which I won’t talk about now, but you can look at the photo to see how I did!).
Christmas at Home
Back in China, we did celebrate Christmas days, but I remember that I couldn’t see any special meaning of Christmas other than eating and playing. In fact, most Chinese know little about Christ, and most of the time these Christmas celebrations are merely due to Chinese people’s curiosity in American cultures and their own eagerness to have fun and enjoy themselves. Just like most of the Chinese food here in America is not in its original Chinese style anymore, most Christmas celebrations I have seen in China have lost their original meanings, especially the meanings about sharing and appreciating.
Spending the holiday with the Randclevs showed me how big a part these values play in the way they celebrate Christmas, and I am grateful they let me share that with them.