The Meaning of Christmas

Trapped in London for Christmas, only a miracle could bring good cheer to a desperate Shanghai banker

He hadn’t guessed it would be the little girl who would bring a tear to his eye. Especially not when he sent that first email… “Don, I guess output’s going to fall off a cliff with this Christmas thing coming up. Can’t see why you guys have to put down tools for two weeks just to stuff yourselves with your bland British cooking…”

Don’s reply had been brief, almost to the point of discourtesy: “That’s really not what Christmas is all about.”


He took this as a sign that yes, indeed, the London office would go into hibernation as of Christmas Eve, before returning to the fray early in the New Year, fatter, floridder and full of commitments to a ‘dry’ January. For Zhou Li Jie, a Shanghai-born banker seconded to his firm’s UK subsidiary, it would be the first time he had seen the run-up to this seasonal shutdown for himself.

Thankfully, he would only be marooned in the UK for the preamble. Tacitly acknowledging his presence would be a little superfluous come 24 December, he was booked on a direct flight to Shanghai that day. With a bit of luck, he would be back in his Jing’an apartment by 10.30am the next day, with the place guaranteed to be free of artificial trees and glowering Santas.

What he hadn’t gathered from 9,000km away was that, in the UK, the run-up to Christmas begins around October. By early November, tinkly Winter Wonderland lift music and the sight of sprigs of holly on every unguarded flat surface had already driven him to distraction.

With just three days to go, he’d sent his second email – “Don, I’m just confirming that I am off on the 24 Dec and then back here 5 Jan. I trust that will be enough time for you to remember the Baby Jesus and sing some old songs about shepherds…”

Don’s reply was as brief as it was familiar: “That’s really not what Christmas is all about…”

Deeming it all but impossible to satisfyingly email a ‘harrumph’ in response, Zhou let it pass. His mood, after all, was improving with every day he got closer to that 11-hour non-stop flight, which would ferry him away to a land where comedy reindeers didn’t fill every shop window and where he wasn’t obliged to kiss a drunk girl from Customer Services just because she’d brought some mistletoe to the office Christmas party.

With less than 48 hours till take-off, he’d emailed Don again: “Could you let me have the list of holiday cover personnel – assuming you’ve managed to find five or six members of staff willing to forsake listening to the jolly old Queen’s Christmas message in order to keep the wheels of international finance turning…”

As ever with Don, the reply was prompt, with a list attached of those for whom brownie points and the time-and-a-half tariff were way more appealing than an inevitably-fraught day with intoxicated in-laws. His postscript, though, was the now-familiar: “That’s really not what Christmas is all about.”

As the countdown became hours rather than days, Zhou passed the time with a final email: “Don, I’m just attaching my home contact details should anything urgent come up, though I doubt anything short of the collapse of the world banking system would drag you away from overindulging your kids with upgraded iPads and copies of Grand Theft Auto High-Speed Motorway Death Pile-Up VI…”

He hardly even registered the now seemingly-obligatory response: “That’s really not what Christmas is all about….”

With four hours to go, things were not going well. Ironically, this was down to a high-speed motorway pile-up just prior to Junction Two of the M4, the motorway linking central London to Heathrow Airport. While it would have been little comfort to Zhou, it’s believed that no deaths or Grand Thefts were directly attributable to the incident. With the road ahead seemingly set to be sealed off for several hours to come and reversing a clear impossibility, it was left to Zhou’s taxi driver to sum up the situation: “Looks like you’re stuffed, mate…”


With the flight missed and no re-booking possible until well after Christmas, Zhou reflected that he was indeed stuffed. With his London hotel room vacated, he was left with little choice but to slink back into the office. Seriously overladen with luggage, his attempts to negotiate his way through the revolving door of the bank’s largely-abandoned London hub were proving somewhat futile until a familiar figure appeared and offered a helping hand. “M4?” asked Don, shaking his head and clearly already knowing the answer. “M4,” Zhou disconsolately confirmed nevertheless. “I hate to say it, but I pretty much reckon you’re stuck with us and, as to getting a decent hotel over the Christmas period…” Don grimaced, confirming a suspicion that had struck Zhou during the long wait for the congestion to clear. “You know,” said Don, “I really think that it’s best that you come with me…”

And that, more or less, was the how and the why that led Zhou to be seated in Don’s living room on Christmas morning, clutching a glass of eggnog and feeling very far from home. Don’s children, however, seemed unfazed by his presence, regarding him, perhaps, as one of the more unusual things Santa had stashed below the family tree on his global gift-giving spree.

Now, though, looking up from the marathon “ooh-ing” and “aah-ing” session that had seen her gaily shred the packaging of at least a dozen carefully wrapped gifts, Don’s daughter – Alana – was gazing at him quizzically. “Daddy says you’re far from home and won’t see your family or get any presents this Christmas,” she said, her eye contact with Zhou remaining unflinching throughout. Zhou nodded in as nonchalant a way as he could muster.

“That’s sad,” said Alana, her tone clearly implying that this was the definitive verdict on Zhou’s predicament. “So, I got you this,” she said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a small, hastily-wrapped object. Zhou took the parcel and carefully unwrapped it under the little girl’s unerring gaze. “It’s a doll,” said Zhou, as the last layer of the gift-wrap finally gave way.

“I know,” said Alana, “Her name’s Suzy and she used to be my friend, but now I think she should be your friend.” The tear had hardly started to form before he felt an arm come around his shoulder. “Now that,” said Don, “is really what Christmas is all about.” “Don,” said Zhou, with the words proving surprisingly hard to form, “you know if you and your family were to ever get stuck in China over the Spring Festival, I’d be honoured if you would spend that time with me and my family…” Don beamed. “You know,” he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t happen real soon. More eggnog, anyone?”

Written by Tony Murray