Christmas upside down.
This was my first Christmas away from home and family. As such, it felt important to decorate and celebrate with as many of the usual traditions as possible. Still, with the business of finishing up classes for the fall and preparing for the Church Christmas program on the 23rd of December, it took me a while to get all the decorations up. For the first 15 years of my life my family had a fake Christmas tree. Every year we’d take it out of wherever we’d stored it and put all the pieces together, scraping up our hands spreading out the wire branches and fitting them into the correct slots on the plastic tree trunk to the groovy tunes of old Christmas bagpipe records between sips of nutmeg-laced eggnog or hot cider with cinnamon sticks. Eventually we threw out the old tree when we realized it was shedding more than a live tree would, and we’ve used real trees ever since.
Back when Judy was with me, we made it a project to explore and reorganize the storage closet upstairs, so I knew where all of the Knoxes’ Christmas things were and had made them conveniently accessible against the day I’d need to fetch them out and decorate. They have a small artificial tree — 4ft tall, and sometime in mid-December I decided it was time to put it up! It may become a truth universally acknowledged, that the harder something is to get wrong, the more hilarious the mistake becomes when it is made. The Christmas tree was an example of this. I read on the box that no assembly was required, all I needed to do was remove it from the box, set it in its stand and decorate it. Taking it out of the box and putting it up wasn’t hard at all — though, just like the artificial tree we used for the first 15 years of my life, the really-forever-and-evergreen tree shed as many needles as its natural counterparts might. Once it was up I faced a bit of a conundrum. It was supposed to be four feet tall and tree-shaped. I seemed to have a 3.5-ish ft shrubbery instead. Surely it was missing an upper piece! I hunted around in the storage closet and the Christmas decoration trunk to no avail, and even emailed the Knoxes about it. After a good night of sleep I took another good look at the tree and realized my mistake: I’d put up the little tree upside-down.
The Christmas shrub incident reminded me of Judy’s blog about her time here. When looking for remarkable cultural differences between Japan and the US, Christmas celebrations are no disappointment! Celebrating Christmas in Japan is a little like celebrating in an alternate world! Perhaps because the Christian population of Japan is so tiny, Japan doesn’t seem to have any ancient Christmas customs of its own. Still, Christmas is a surprisingly popular holiday here. Of course, to the Japanese, Christmas is less about celebrating divine, unfailing love and more about celebrating romantic and parental love — the only people who usually receive gifts for Japanese Christmas are children and sweethearts. Christmas Eve in Japan is a time for couples to go on romantic walks through illuminated landscapes before cozying up over sliced of Christmas Cake (basically a strawberry shortcake with other tropical fruit slices in the whipped filling between cake layers). Families can look festive wearing party hats and popping confetti poppers before blowing out the candles on their Christmas cakes and letting the kids open presents from “Santa-san”. And one mustn’t forget the Christmas chicken from KFC! That’s how the Americans celebrate, after all, and Christmas is an American holiday, originally ;-). Actually, my students have all expressed shock and dismay when I’ve confided in them that Americans don’t usually associate KFC, or even chicken, with Christmas at all, and that our fruitcake is something drastically different. Apparently a popular ad campaign from KFC portrayed foreigners settling for fried chicken when there were no turkeys to be found in Japanese markets and the tradition was born! Now, you have to reserve your KFC dinner at the beginning of December if you hope to have it at Christmas — and it’ll cost you $50-70.
This year, a friend who’s teaching with the JET program up on Sado island, came down to spend her Christmas break with me in Moroyama. She arrived just in time to join in our Church’s Christmas program and feast at the local community center. It was a time of lovely music, a special Christmas kamishibai (narrated picture show), and phenomenally good food. Our own Christmas celebration was a peculiar mix of American and Japanese customs, with a dash of our own hobbies and occupations mixed in. We spent Christmas eve exploring some of the hobby shops and book stores of Akihabara — I’m pretty sure 15 year-old me and friends would have fainted from excitement at all the anime and manga merchandise we saw. Hey, I was still pretty excited as it was! I made it home without spending too much money, but still having a renewed appreciation for the artistry in hobbies old and new.
We picked up a little Christmas cake at the station on the way back and enjoyed lighting and blowing out the candles for Christmas after we returned to the house late that evening. On Christmas morning we opened stockings and ate convenience-store fried chicken and some home-made mashed potatoes, each taking some time to call our folks when it was time-zone appropriate to do so. It was on Boxing Day that we had our “real” Christmas dinner, once again surrounded by the good folks at the Clift’s home and table a few hours away.
All in all, it was a wonderful Christmas. Recently, it came up in conversation with a student that what makes a day special, better or remarkably different than any other day, is the time spent and memories made or reviewed with people who are important to you. This holds true, even on the other side of the world.