Lena Xu celebrated plenty of Christmases in China before moving to Philadelphia last year, but in her homeland, the holiday didn’t exactly ring with a loud, bouncy jingle.

It was more like St. Patrick’s Day, minus the shamrocks and leprechauns — popular, but not for everyone. Christmas was less a season than a day, one where people typically exchange gifts, meet friends for drinks and dinner, or attend one of the banquets staged at big hotels.

But this year, in the United States, Xu is going all out:

A visit to the Macy’s Light Show in Center City? On the list. A big, green Christmas tree at home? Check. A trip to the Poconos to romp in the snow? Checking it twice.

“Now I realize it’s much more than just shopping,” Xu said. “Christmas everywhere!”

Xu, 45, is a finance director at GlaxoSmithKline, the giant pharmaceutical firm, having come here from the company’s office in Shanghai. Before joining GSK, she worked in the China operations of big American companies like Kraft Foods, Kimberly-Clark Corp., and Pepsico.

Xu and her husband, Kevin Liang, and their 15-year-old son, Paul Liang, arrived in November 2017, providing enough time to glimpse some holiday light and glitter, but not to fully take part.

Like thousands of other foreign executives stationed in the U.S., Xu must adapt to a new society, which includes figuring out the intricacies of holidays like Christmas.

“I don’t understand a lot behind the festival,” she said. “I’m still learning.”

Lena Xu, her husband Kevin Liang, and their son Paul (right), 15, walk around Philadelphia City Hall amid the holiday lights and cheer. They are new to the United States and embracing this holiday called Christmas. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Lena Xu, her husband Kevin Liang, and their son Paul (right), 15, walk around Philadelphia City Hall amid the holiday lights and cheer. They are new to the United States and embracing this holiday called Christmas. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The religious aspect can be a little confusing — it doesn’t seem to mesh with Santa Claus. She’s found the best thing to do to understand the local traditions is to watch what others are doing and follow that lead.

In China, the big holiday is Spring Festival, celebrating the Lunar New Year. That’s the time for families to be together, when hundreds of millions of people travel to their hometowns, packing trains and buses in what’s billed as the world’s largest annual migration. China Central Television estimated that 2.98 billion trips were taken during the 2018 New Year travel rush.

But Christmas holds its own in China. During the last decade or so, as China’s rising economy lifted millions out of poverty, Christmas has become a popular secular celebration. This year in Beijing, the Indigo Mall opened a new indoor "Christmas Town,” complete with a giant decorated tree and rolling toy trains.

Of course, China is officially atheist, so while Santa pops up in stores and displays, Jesus is generally ignored. Both religious observance and government persecution of believers is on the rise in China, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Xu came into this country on what’s called an L-1A non-immigrant visa, which allows a U.S. employer to transfer an executive or manager from one of its international offices to one of its domestic operations. Managers can bring their spouses and children, and stay for a maximum of seven years, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The State Department issued about 78,200 such visas for business managers in fiscal 2017.

Chinese make up the third-largest group of immigrants in the U.S. — about 2.3 million, up from 384,000 in 1980. That ranks China behind only India and Mexico as sending countries, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. Chinese represent 5 percent of the 44 million immigrants in America. They are significantly better educated and more likely to work in management positions, compared with other foreign-born populations and to people born in the U.S.

Xu and her family live in Lower Merion. This week, they checked out the decorations around City Hall, especially the official Philly Holiday Tree with its Liberty Bell topper.

“People take it more seriously here,” son Paul said. “Chinese people, we change it a little bit.”

Christmas Village has been a popular Center City spot to buy gifts or just to browse. Here, Flatboat Fair Traders sells everything from jewelry to toys to notebooks, crafted by artisans in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Christmas Village has been a popular Center City spot to buy gifts or just to browse. Here, Flatboat Fair Traders sells everything from jewelry to toys to notebooks, crafted by artisans in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Xu was born in a village near the Shanxi province city of Changzhi, known for its Laoding Mountain scenery. She was 5 when her family moved to Beijing. Her father is now retired from a government job, and her mother works as a physician.

Neither of her parents could name the month or day of Christmas, she said. It’s a holiday for younger generations. Her son loves Santa Claus, both for his jolly appearance and his mysterious overnight delivery of gifts.

The other thing about Christmas?

No three days of cooking in advance, as happens at the New Year. A trip to Giant or Whole Foods will settle the menu this year, leaving time to spend with friends and to get out and experience the holiday.

“Philadelphia itself is a very friendly city,” Xu said. “I love the seasons here. Beijing has four seasons, but not much snow in winter. … I love seeing snow.”