Taiwan’s biodiversity really stands out. An active volcano lives next door to Taipei. There are evergreen forests up and down the central spine, and tropical beaches in the south. Almost everything is represented here, including real pine trees, but there are no real Christmas trees. Nearly all of the Christmas trees you’ll see in Taipei are artificial.
Is this surprising? When you spend the holidays in Taipei, fragments of Christmas are everywhere. A sure sign this holiday means something different to Taiwanese people than Westerners.
Western products are everywhere in Taiwan. But as expats know, this is different than having Western ideas. In other words — Western things isn’t the same as Western culture.
No one is putting a Santa hat on Confucius. Also, Christmas and Boxing Day aren’t national holidays. Taiwan is open for business on Christmas Day, and so are the schools.
This means there are no days off, like you might get in Hong Kong. Last year, I gave a final presentation for a MBA class on Christmas Eve day. As one of my classmates calls it, “Fake Christmas!” Yes, and not exactly.
At least there’s no pretending. Christmas in Taipei is a commercial affair. Treat yourself to something 88 折 (12% off).
Taiwanese Christmas Spirit
Where’s all the Christmas spirit? Most people know what it looks like. New Taipei City annually transforms Banqiao into a winter wonderland. Taiwanese people generally aren’t as familiar with the customs because it’s not linked with Chinese culture — other than red being a lucky color. Locals don’t go around saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” to each other, because people generally keep to themselves. This doesn’t change during the holidays.
Christmas in a lot of non-Judeo-Christian countries is already about the shopping. And Taiwan, as a nation, is mostly devoted to Buddhist and Daoist temples.
There’s a clear line between Santa Baby and Baby Buddha. Christmas just hasn’t been integrated into the folklore or the educational system, in spiritual ways. The people miss out on certain aspects of the western version. This means Christmas gets respect, but not the same respect. It’s accepted, differently.
For example, most Taiwanese don’t know stories like the ‘Gift of the Magi‘, or, ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas‘ — seen above. No one knows Cindy Lou Who but everyone’s heard of Elsa. You know. Elsa, from Disney’s Frozen. Partly, it’s generational. Mostly, ideas about Christmas are passed along through pop culture and commercialization.
This statement isn’t totally fair. Western companies like Coca-Cola set the example by commercializing Christmas a long time ago. The biggest difference is Christmas in Taiwan doesn’t come with the history or traditions that don’t have to do with buying things. And for a holiday that’s so deeply rooted in both, the rituals become more important than the expectations. Getting thru Christmas in Taipei is finding something you recognize from home, and holding onto it for a couple hours.
Surviving Christmas in Taipei as an Expat
The big adjustments for this American Christmas refugee were the sub-tropical weather (no snow) — but even more, the smells, and sounds.
Mulled wine. The roasts. Yes, even fruitcake, to some extent. You find that Starbucks plays a lot of Christmas music and that’s about it.
There are no volunteers ringing red kettles for the Salvation Army. Which ironically, is also a form of commercialism. Charity drives is an industry of its own in America (Taiwan is catching on, though).
But I’m not the spokesperson for America, or Christmas. People have their own ideas of what that is, and there are so many ways to celebrate Christmas in Taipei. These are a few of the rituals that became valuable to me.
- Friends volunteer at The PACK Sanctuary, a shelter for rescue dogs, on Christmas Eve
- My first-year MBA students put together a gift exchange through Elfster.com. They’re awesome.
- Every year, I come up with a new holiday drink. 2017 featured a different take on the White Russian, with gin and almond milk.
- To kick off the holiday season, we had a pot-luck supper at a friend’s bar
- Some expats put on a Christmas cabaret production every year
- Outdoor holiday bazaars, like Banqiao in New Taipei City. Taiwan definitely gets the shopping part right.
- My friend does a Google Form to exchange real Christmas cards
- Hosting a Christmas Eve get-together so no expat has to be alone
- Saying thank you to people who are kind to you. Sometimes people are so practical that they forget gestures don’t have to have a value.
- I’d like to rent a commercial kitchen – which there are a lot of – host an outing, and bake a few dozen kinds of Christmas cookies.
Next year, you’re invited.