Living in China during the holidays is like living any other day. There’s no Black Friday—a family favorite for me! (Although, any weekend shopping trip here can seem similar with the crowds.) There aren’t tons of Christmas lights lining the streets. There aren’t carols being played in the store, except maybe the most annoying version of “Jingle Bells” on repeat non-stop, and way too loud. Christmas décor isn’t lining the shelves starting in September.
Some years Christmas snuck up on us. I didn’t like that.
I didn’t realize how inundated we were with Christmas stuff when we lived in the States. Although I don’t miss it all, I do miss some of it. It sure helped me get more in the mood to decorate my home, bake endlessly, and shop for thoughtful presents.
Here, it’s more like: try to find non-gaudy/1970s decorations, spend eons in the kitchen making those same baked goods all from scratch, and try to find non-Chinafied gifts for friends and family that won’t break within the first week.
But you know what? I’ve grown to love it more and more each year.
Yes, it’s still hard. Being away from family during the holidays hurts every year. (Boy are we thankful for video chat!) Not being able to jump in the car and do all my shopping in a few hours is still frustrating. Baking goodies takes longer, but they taste sooo good! But all these have-nots force us to focus more on why we celebrate Christmas. Our family has been able to create new traditions surrounding Jesus and loving on others instead of presents.
With teammates or other foreigners in our city, we typically eat brunch in our jammies, exchange gifts, and spend the rest of the day playing games, watching movies, and just being together. For me, that fills a small void that I miss so dearly. It’s not with my blood family, but it’s with my China family. Family that has been through thick and thin with us throughout the year.
One of my favorite years was when we invited a few of our single friends over to celebrate. I haven’t been overseas as a single during Christmas, but I imagine it can be lonely and the enemy can use the time to spit lies. Those girls expressed how thankful they were to be included in our family traditions and celebrations. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Their presence, friendship, and how well they loved on my kids was such a blessing.
Maybe the holidays are extra hard for you. I acknowledge that, but I also encourage you to remember why you moved to the place you live now. He is worth it all!
So what tastes like Christmas to you? Share a favorite Christmas recipe with us? What new traditions have you created since living overseas?
One tradition I’ve started since living here is to make cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning. Although growing up, we didn’t make cinnamon rolls from scratch (who would when you can pop open a can?!), these taste just like home.
These may seem daunting at first because they require that scary thing called yeast. But I hope my tips help you push through! It took me several loaves of bread that turned into baseball bats to figure out my issue with yeast. Just keep your eye on the prize—warm, delicious cinnamon rolls.
Sometimes yeast is finicky. Don’t despair. If it foams like this after a few minutes, you succeeded in keeping it alive!
After almost all of the flour is added, my arm gets tired and I turn the shaggy dough onto the counter and add more flour as I begin to knead.
As you’re kneading, the dough will absorb all the flour and start to get sticky again. Add little sprinkles of flour at a time to keep it from sticking to your hands and everything else.
Is it weird to anyone else to think about the little yeasties growing inside?
Finding a warm spot to let the dough rise is crucial! If it’s not near 80+ degrees, it will either take for-ev-er to rise, or won’t rise at all! Well at the time I made these, our heat wasn’t on. My second-best option? On top of our “dryer” next to our (clean) socks. If you don’t have a warm spot in the open, you can pre-heat your oven to the lowest temperature, turn it off, then put dough inside to rise until doubled.
Doubled! I secretly want to jump in it.
Roll ‘er out and dump massive amounts of goodness on top.
Roll ‘er up! I start on one and and work my way back and forth.
Seal the edges with a little water. This keep the rolls from opening up and unrolling as they bake.
Re-shape a little if they get squished when you cut them. The second rise will help them get to their fluffly, wonderful, goodness!
As the tantalizing aromas waft from the oven, distract yourself with making the icing. And then eat a few finger licks. Ya know, to make sure it’s good enough to serve to others. The sacrifices we make in the kitchen…
Ohhhh baby. Dive in!
Soft, sweet, and just like home.
Homemade Cinnamon Rolls
Makes 12-16 rolls Time: 2 1/2-3 hours
2 Tbsp warm water (110F/45C)
1 cup milk
2 eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup butter, melted, then cooled for 5 minutes
4 ½ cups flour
1 tsp salt
½ cup sugar
2 ½ tsp yeast
1 cup brown sugar, packed *
2 ½ Tbsp ground cinnamon
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1 ½ Tbsp butter
1 ½ Tbsp milk
¼ tsp vanilla
*In China, the local brown sugar has way too much molasses in it, which then turns into hard, annoying rocks. Check out this Korean brand for my favorite alternative. I can find it in a local Korean store for about the same price as on Taobao. I have also used the Chinese brown sugar many times, but I mix in half white sugar because it’s so dark here. So, for this recipe, ½ c brown sugar, ½ cup white sugar.
In a large bowl, stir together the yeast and warm water until yeast has dissolved. Let it sit 5 minutes. If it foams, you’re good to go. If not, toss it and try again; your water may have been too hot and killed the yeast.
Mix in the milk, sugar, butter, salt, and eggs. (Again, make sure your butter is cooled or it will kill the yeast!)
Add 2 cups of the flour. Mix well. Add in the rest of the flour. It will become tough to stir. When my arm is too tired to stir with a spoon, I turn the dough onto my counter and work it together with my hands. Knead into a large, smooth ball, 5-8 minutes. If it becomes too sticky during this process, sprinkle a little flour on top and keep kneading.
Grease a large bowl and put the dough inside, flipping it once to cover the whole ball with oil. Cover with a towel and let it rise in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.
After it has doubled, turn dough onto a lightly floured surface, cover, and let rest another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.
Roll dough into a 16×21 inch rectangle. Roughly—I never measure!! Spread dough with 1/3 cup softened butter and sprinkle evenly with sugar/cinnamon mixture. Starting on the long end, roll up dough and cut into 12-16 rolls. Place rolls in a lightly greased 9×13 pan. Use additional pans if needed. (If you’d like to make these the night before, this is the point where you’d stop and put them in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap. In the morning, let them sit out in a warm place 30 minutes, then bake.) Cover and let rise until nearly doubled, about 30 minutes. While waiting, preheat oven to 400F (200C).
Bake rolls until golden brown, about 15 minutes. While rolls are baking, combine powdered sugar, butter, milk and vanilla. Everyone has a different icing consistency they like. If it’s too thick for you, add milk 1 tsp at a time. If it’s too thin, add more powdered sugar. Cream cheese frosting is also great on these!
Let rolls cool a few minutes before putting on the icing; otherwise the icing will melt and all fall to the bottom of the pan! But, if you’re impatient like I often am, do it anyway and then have an excuse to lick the pan.
So what tastes like Christmas to you? Share a favorite Christmas recipe with us?