This post is part of the series “Christmas at My House” – reflections on the wide diversity of Christmas experiences.
My immigrant family had to learn many things the hard way: what a diorama was, when I came home from school in 2nd grade and announced that I had to make one for class; the difference between a good Halloween costume and a bad one; the odd customs around school dances. The answers were usually simple, if inexplicable: You buy your prom date a corsage or a boutonniere because that’s simply what people do; you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but no other saints’ days, for exactly the same reason. But the thing we never quite figured out was what we were supposed to eat for Christmas dinner.
Most American holidays have prescribed menus: Thanksgiving has turkey and the trimmings; Easter has lamb (as in Christ, the Risen) or ham (because when it comes to celebrating the resurrected Lord, the focal point should be the fact that pig products are now fair game). A grill takes care of Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Labor Day. But Christmas, as far as we could tell, had no set ritual. We knew people who did another turkey – puzzling, since we usually still had Thanksgiving leftovers in our freezer that we didn’t care to see again. Some families we knew did another ham, as if all holidays involving Jesus needed to involve non-kosher meat. In the old picture books I read, the Christmas meal often featured a goose, not unlike the ones that congregated at the park near our house and crapped all over our lawn. That didn’t sound appetizing in the least.
Over time, the absence of a clear rule made us feel free to do whatever we wanted. We tried different things every year, but nothing really stuck – until the year we decided to celebrate with Peking duck. No one remembers exactly when it was or who came up with the idea – did I suggest it because I was in college, subsisting on dorm food, and I craved real Chinese cuisine? Did my mom bring one home because the Chinese grocery store was always open on Christmas Eve and it usually had a few ducks available? Whatever the reason, once we sat at the table and slathered our thin pancakes with hoisin sauce, adding layers of crispy skin and oily meat and crunchy green onions, we knew we had found our Christmas food. It was the perfect dish for our Christmas, for the celebration of our life in America.
My family has celebrated Christmas for as long as I can remember. It isn’t really for religious reasons – my mother is nominally Catholic and my father Buddhist, with a handful of traditional Taiwanese rituals mixed in as needed, and I didn’t become a Christian until I was nearly out of the house. No, we celebrate Christmas mostly because that’s what you do when you live in America and you don’t have strong religious convictions otherwise. For us, like many immigrant families, Christmas isn’t as much a religious celebration as a celebration of the life and the family my parents have created in the States.
And who can blame us for latching onto the holiday? Every December (or November, or even October), twinkling lights engulf neighborhoods and public spaces, Christmas wreaths and trees appear on every door and in every window, holiday parties take place twice a weekend. Christmas is all-consuming, everywhere. Given its pervasiveness and the months-long leadup, it feels far more like our national holiday than the 4th of July. And if people celebrate primarily by spending time with family, exchanging gifts and holiday cheer, and maybe sending some correspondence to far-flung friends – who wouldn’t be on board? It’s hard to find a holiday that’s easier to adopt, even for someone who’s new here.
So every year, after Thanksgiving, my parents drag the Christmas tree out of the box in the basement. (It’s fake, of course – they’re too practical to spend money on a new tree each year, and they don’t have time to vacuum fallen pine needles. Nor do they have time to untangle Christmas lights, so the tree is also pre-lit.) They dust off the boxes of Christmas cards they bought on sale after last year’s Christmas. They type a Christmas letter with an update on each member of the family; they email my brother and me to edit it for grammar and punctuation before they print it and insert one in each card. They welcome us home, at which point we promptly regress into the lazy children-on-vacation of Christmases past. The tree, the letter, the adult children lounging around the house – they’re all little celebrations of the ways in which my parents have made it here. After more than 40 years in the States, the holiday – and American life – is second nature to them. Their children are (relatively) well-adjusted and high-functioning and enjoy spending time with them. Their lives here have been a success.
I don’t think my parents are ever as aware of this fact as they are at Christmastime. The Peking duck, then, takes on new meaning: It is a symbol of their Asian American life, of the life they’ve forged for themselves here. They arrived here 42 years ago with virtually nothing, not even each other, and now they have a life richer and fuller than they could have ever imagined. As we sit around the table, chewing our rolled-up pancakes full of duck, we smile with gratitude.
Around the same time that the Peking duck tradition started, we also started seeing movies on Christmas day, because it gave us the chance to do something together in the window between opening presents and devouring dinner. So Peking duck and a movie is our thing now, which means that our Christmas celebrations now resemble those of our Jewish friends more than anyone else’s. This warms my little heart. I love that in the absence of existing traditions, our family stumbled our way into our own. My parents are the beginning of something that my brother and I get to continue.
I’m counting down the days until Peking duck in Michigan next week. Christmas is the one time of year I have it, and each time I do, I am filled with gratitude for this tradition, for this symbol, for my parents and everything they’ve accomplished. We celebrate the remarkable life they’ve created here. We celebrate what our family has become. We celebrate with Peking duck.