Tuesday, 14 December 2010

God bless us, everyone!

In the coming weeks, thousands of Assistant Language Teachers across the Japanese archipelago will don Santa hats and festive sweaters for their annual Christmas lessons. I've been recruited as a Father Christmas for the morning assembly at Miyahara Elementary school next Monday, and though I worry that I'm simultaneously too tall and too skinny for their Santa suit, I am quite excited to ho-ho-ho for the wee ones.

Last week after a middle-school class, one of my Japanese co-teachers and I began chatting about the holiday season:

(In Japanese)

Carter: Did you do anything with the class last year for Christmas?

Japanese Teacher of English: Yes! We sent Christmas cards to Santa Claus. Did you know that he lives in Finland? We sent them to his address!

C: Finland? So there's be a man in Finland who pretends to be Santa... In America, we believe Santa lives at the North Pole...

JTE(matter-of-factly):  No, it's really Santa.

C: ....

JTE: We sent them to his address!

C: ....

A crush of rowdy first-years ended our conversation before I could enquire further about this mysterious Finnish St. Nick. Perhaps it's for the best that I didn't burst any bubbles that day - surely the world's a better place for every full-grown man who believes in Father Christmas.

As to be expected in a country where most people consider themselves Buddhists, Christmas in Japan is a more subdued affair than in the US of A. One still hears Christmas carols at grocery stores and spots wreathes on shop windows, but such mercantile festiveness is of a lower order of magnitude than the onslaught of "holiday cheer" back home. There are no qualms over losing sight of "the meaning of Christmas" here, no mention of baby Jesus or his manger, no "god bless us, everyone!" from Tiny Tim, no Gift of the Magi, no Grinch. Instead of eggnog, turkey, or gingerbread cookies, there's Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve, followed by a store-bought Christmas cake.

 The more cynical among us might see this as a purer distillation of the reality of Christmas - an excuse to buy some holiday-themed stuff, devoid of any pretensions of spiritual or moral significance.

Those people can kindly choke on a fruitcake. I love Christmas.  True, I don't miss the preening celebrities churning out terrible new renditions of carols like clockwork, the consumerist frenzy that inevitably leads to someone being trampled to death at Walmart, even the idea that idea that one needs to express one's love for family through the accumulation of generally useless stuff. Nor do I miss the renewed sanctimoniousness of those who take the season as an opportunity to remind us how great baby Jesus is. But for me, Christmas remains a special time, a holiday that becomes profound precisely because it moves so far away from its religious origins. Even the most hardened cynics (when they're done choking on that fruitcake) may admit there's something wonderful about hot cocoa (or eggnog...) with relatives around a fire, or the younger generation playing in the snow, or the magical smells of christmas trees and gingerbread. There's something vital in such traditions, in the way they pull families and friends together, even if they can't stand each other most of the time. Perhaps its not much more than nostalgia, but nostalgia ranks among the more powerful emotions known to man.

Japan has no shortage of home-grown festivals, so maybe it's not such a tragedy that Christmas is a Hallmark holiday here. Even so, I'm so so so happy to be going home for the holidays :)


  1. Just dropping in to tell you that I really enjoy reading your posts :) It makes me feel that I should blog more often ^^; Happy holidays! We shall meet again for some crazy karaoke and what not in 2011 :D

  2. Hot cocoa + peppermint shnapps, christmas sweaters, secret santa, and SO-3 family photos... Thank you guys for making my Christmas a bit more festive than watching bits of the 24 hour marathon of "A Christmas Story", having greasy Chinese food, and constantly trying to convince myself that having 8 days of mediocre cheer and gifts is better than the Xmas day absurdities