Monday, December 21, 2015

A Merry Little Christmas...in Japan

Have yourself a merry little Christmas 
Let your heart be light 
Next year all our troubles will be
Out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yule-tide gay
Next year all our troubles will be
Miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon, we all will be together
If the Fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.



As cheesy as it is, this one Christmas song never fails to give me "the feels" as kids say these days...especially this (original?) version, which I don't hear very often--the lyrics have been changed to include less muddling. But sometimes, we really do just have to muddle through. That's how this holiday season felt to me this year.

Christmas cake--nearly too cute to eat. Strawberries are a winter food here.
It's my 5th Christmas in Japan now. Every year has served to complicate my thoughts about it. To start with, Christmas is a relatively recent import to Japan. There are a few "traditions" (going on a date with your lover, eating KFC chicken, and Christmas cake) but since it's not a native Japanese holiday, I find there's very little substance. Japan has imported the commercial trappings--that we all love and love to hate--only. It makes sense. The biggest holiday in Japan is oshougatsu, the New Year, and a lot of the fall and winter revolve around preparations for it. So Christmas is kind of a commercial afterthought, meant to appeal to children and college students with dates. I have a different reference for Christmas though. Christmas is supposed to mean warmth, cheer, gathering with loved ones and eating good food, singing all the old carols in church with a candlelight service to bring to mind the Light of the World. 

The first year I was here, Christmas was a ton of fun. I was an exchange student with time on my hands; we all got together and had a Christmas party, and I could participate in a Christmas program at church. Then my husband and I became shakaijin , employed members of Japanese society (cue ominous organ music). Suddenly Decembers became very different, and we entered the world of nenmatsu end-of-the-year sales campaigns, several company bounenkai (end-of-year parties, a phenomenon that deserves its own post), the 24th, 25th, and Sunday before as normal working days, company and church oosouji ("big cleaning" like spring cleaning but done before the new year), worrying about how to return oseibo, traditional year-end gifts, and nengajou, new year's greeting cards. Whew! I feel worn-out just listing it all. It's insane. Everyone plugs through December just hoping to make it to the New Year's holiday (generally 4-5 days off when pretty much the entire country shuts down) in one piece. As you can imagine in this society, Christmas is an attraction for non-shakaijin folks, a blip on the screen for us. Our house is too small for even a tiny Christmas tree, our December too packed for any celebration. 

Doesn't it help to be Christian and part of a church? Well, yes and no. I can't always get the right days off work to enjoy it. And then one year I spent at a church that didn't celebrate Christmas so as to stick to Scripture and get away from the Catholic church calendar. That made me question Christmas a lot. I don't really need it, or any of the trappings. The things we enjoy at Christmas, we can and should enjoy any time of the year. Why make Christmas, a completely man-made holiday, so special? What's so Christian about a Christmas tree or presents or good food?

So the next two Christmasses after that, I was fine. Don't need no Christmas. I'm a Christian all year 'round. I give presents and charity to folks anytime. I'm one of the good cool integrated gaijin who don't complain about that kind of obvious cultural difference. I enjoyed the "couples" Japanese-style Christmas and went on dates to light-up events with Yuya. Last year, our first married Christmas together, we stayed home because we were too tired. I made burritos and we listened to records. It was alright. 
Usually all I see of Christmas in Japan. No one here really knows about the origins of Christmas or cares about political correctness. 
But this year is a little different somehow. Maybe all the trappings of Christmas I notice makes me homesick a bit. Maybe I miss my family gathering around and going to church together. Maybe I'm awakening to the irony of working on Christmas Day so as to provide a "foreign country's Christmas" campaign to our customers. Maybe I'm losing my interest in the oshougatsu warm family time because of the demands on shakaijin and my faith which says no to a lot of the Shinto/Buddhist traditions of the season. But to be honest, I miss Christmas. It makes me feel like a bad gaijin, moping about why my second country doesn't have the same stuff going on as my home country. 

Then yesterday, a lightbulb came on. The talk at church was about how Christmas is about waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. How much was just muddling through? Going through the motions? Rinse and repeat? Dealing with hollowness, feeling lonely? Dissatisfied with the lack of substance in celebrations? The faithful must have experienced all of it waiting for the One to redeem them from the empty ways of life handed down from generation to generation. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Christmas, in all its glory, is only a tiny passing shadow. In Japan, I hardly get even the shadow I'm used to. And it's enough, because it teaches me something. The gift and the lesson is priceless. 

"Mewwy Chwismas!" said the 3-year-old at church who handed these to me. BEST PRESENT EVER.

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