Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Christmas That Isn't

I remember the Christmasses of 1998 and 2005. They weren't particularly different and it's not that I remember them in any great detail. What I do remember is savouring them. During both, I knew I'd be living in Japan the following years.
Before coming here the first time in 1999, I knew that as Japan isn't a Christian country, not to expect Easter or Christmas. That year, Easter passed without any acknowledgement what-so-ever. I even worked on Easter Sunday.
Imagine my surprise in November when the department stores and shopping centres began selling Christmas decorations, playing Christmas carols and started taking orders for their version of a Christmas cake (a fluffy sponge cake with lots of cream and strawberries).
Over the next couple of months, I was lulled into a false sense of celebration. I bought and sent Christmas cards, helped in numerous Christmas parties for students at the school I worked and was looking forward to the dinner party planned on Christmas night.
Knowing that I'd otherwise be alone on Christmas morning, my friend Jodie invited me to stay with her on Christmas Eve. We could open our presents together she suggested. Her Japanese husband would be working that day, as would most Japanese, as it's just a normal working day. This fact should have clued me in to the real Japanese Christmas spirit, or rather lack there of. I happily accepted, gave her phone number to my family so they could call me on the day and packed the ingredients for the rum balls I was planning on making for the dinner party that night.
The morning started off well with a fellow ex-pat to celebrate with . While rolling the rum balls however, I realised I needed more coconut.
"Just go down to the supermarket," Jodie suggested.
I was shocked. The supermarket was open on Christmas Day? Really, it made sense, it was a normal business day after all and really quite convenient in my current prediciment.
Part of me wishes I never had gone. A tiny piece of my love for Japan died in those very moments.
I arrived at the supermarket. The same carols were playing, the same decorations on sale, though now at 50% off, the same Christmas cakes on display and housewives wandering through the aisles doing their same old grocery shopping.
I was furious, I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I felt betrayed. It was Christmas Day and this was so not Christmas. For months, there had been a feeling of "Christmas is coming... Christmas is coming.." and now it had come, no-one cared. They had taken everything commercial and cute from the season and none of the spirit. It was a bit like someone continually telling you that they really wanted you to come to a party and then giving you the cold shoulder when you did.
I wanted to grab the grocery-shopping-Christmas-ignoring housewives by the shoulders, shake them and say "This is it! This is Christmas! Don't you understand?!?"
Instead, I quietly bought my shredded coconut, left the centre and cried.
Now every year that I'm living in Japan and November rolls around, I get a mixture of excitement and panic about the approaching Christmas. I don't want to feel that anger and dissapointment again. I don't want the hipocracy that is Christmas in Japan rubbed into my face again.
I can't really plan a Christmas dinner with many people as most of my ex-pat friends return "home" for the holidays, and my Japanese friends are working and don't quite understand. For me, the solution is to travel. I know I'm not going to have the same family and friends with me, I know I'm not going to be eating the same Christmas treats but I do know I'll be doing something special and different. This has become my personal Christmas in Japan tradition.
So far at Christmas, I've been to Singapore, Osaka and Kobe, Hakuba and this year, to Matsumoto. For Christmas meals I've eaten Chinese, Mexican, English Pub food, Indonesian and Spanish, none of them in anyway Christmassy, but all of them special.
As long as my family and friends are in my heart and I keep this one day of the year special, I'll have Christmas no matter where I live.


Contamination said...

Living in Japan, it's easy to have the spirit of Christmas drained from you. Now into my second year I feel that it's just another day, but luckily it's also a company holiday. :-)

But it's the same kind of crass commercialism as back in Australia. The same kind of apathy towards the season in the stores.

The problem is that the people don't care either. I wonder why they even note the celebration at all??

Anonymous said...

You should become Catholic and celebrate Advent and Christmas as the Church suggests. It's good for the heart and better for the soul.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Hey Contamination : I agree, there is a lot of crass commercialism in Australia when it comes to Christmas, but there is a lot of other stuff as well. For me, I spend most of December catching up with friends I may not have seen for a while, sending cards, baking cookies to give to friends and people I work with (I do the same but with rum balls), there are Christmas concerts, many people contribute to charities around that time (myself included), so there is still a spirit to the holiday. What I don't like about Christmas here, is they've taken the commercial stuff, but none of the spirit.

Hi Anonymous: Thank you for your comment. While I'm not Catholic, I do have very strong spiritial beliefs and do celebrate Christmas. What bothers me in Japan though, is they've taken a holiday which is special to many people, whether it be for spiritial or cultural traditions, use only the commercial side of it without any understanding or care about what the holiday is about.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Japan takes what it likes from other cultures and uses it in a way that seems apalling to those who treasure such things back home. The western-style church wedding, Christmas,... You can go on and on.

Christmas here is well-known as a couples' day. If you really want to see something sick, go to Odaiba on Christmas day. The hordes of poofy-haired femme boys and their pigeon-toed girlfriends is enough to make you want to puke.

The best way to preserve the spirit of Christmas here is to have your friends and/or family here over for the afternoon and evening and don't even bother going out.

Contamination said...

Mel, just the commercialism and none of the spirit. You couldn't have made a truer statement! Even when I wish my students a merry xmas, it feels like I am just going through the motions...

Billy, Hi! Those Femboys are a source of entertainment for me. I have to wonder how successful they will end up later in life when they have to enter the real world.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Hey Billy, as I just said on your blog, I'm so glad you dropped by, I was trying to remember your new blog name today.... I remember my first New Year's Eve here and how the "Countdown Party" I went to was only couples. I was so depressed. A Japanese friend of mine told me that in Japan, if you have a date on Christmas Eve, you are almost guaranteed to get sex and the love hotels are booked out months in advance. Mmmm... really makes me wonder what they think Christmas is all about....

Hi again Contamination, I know what you mean about "going through the motions". The couple of weeks before the holidays, I've been doing Christmas lessons in class. Rather than only do the usual Christmas carol and card making, I've been trying to make it my personal mission to teach what Christmas is about (mostly the secular version though). On the last day, I run around giving home-made rum balls to people, hoping that at least some message get through.

Chris said...

I understand what you are on about, but also I'm a bit ... Torn?
After all Japan is not a christian country, and christmas is after all ... Very christian is it not? In my opinion tho as an not christian person I still enjoy christmas, meeting family and friends eating good. Thats it tho, wonder what a monk from the 16th century would think about me? :O
If they are happy about having christmas as an couples eve then let it be?
I'm not critizing or anything, jsut my own thoughts about it. I'm enjoying both sides of it, having a romantic evening with my partner, or sitting with my family eating ham is a toss up for me honestly. I lost the special sense of christmas many years ago :) As a child, it was truly special tho, I admit that.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Hi Chris

You've got some very good points there. Christmas is a Christian celebration but is something that many non-Christians celebrate. For those of us who've been brought up in English-speaking countries, we've been brought up in a society that has somewhat of a Christian base. Christmas then has become a cultural tradition for us as well.

With Japan as an example, I wonder how far Christmas can be changed and stripped bare and still be called Christmas. It's no like it is a long tradition for them. Traditions do evolve over time and change, but usually that is a slow process over many generations. Does anyone know how long Japan has been celebrating "Christmas", surely it has to have been only within the last 50 years.

Anyway, maybe this post really should have been called "The Christmas that isn't what I'm used to", "The Christmas that isn't what I expect" or "The Christmas that isn't what I want".

Amber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amber said...

Hey darling,

I love your blog(s)! I believe this is my first time commenting.

This is possibly a bit late but I wanted to share in some of your sadness about the lack of Christmas spirit.

Here in America, the spirit could very well be the on the same level as in Japan. People do not appreciate what they have, they push and shove. I've actually witnessed knock-down drag out fights in stores. They do not acknowledge the fact that it is, in fact, a holy day. A day for coming together and loving one another. It's pure commercialism.

I am truly sickened by a society that wants to celebrate Christmas with the gifts and the parties. But that is it, they take no more from it.

They are trying to take Christ out of everything, even his own holiday. In fact, many refuse to even say "Merry Christmas", refuse to call it a "Christmas tree".

On some level, it's even worse than Japan, they are a country that does not have a Christian foundation, we here in America are or should I say... were.

Keep up the wonderful blog,

James Clarke said...

Hi Melanie,

Happy New Year.

I really loved reading this entry in your blog. It reminded me of a line in a Japanese movie called "Buta tou Gunkan" (Pigs and Battleships). A Japanese high school teacher who had returned from living in America lamented to an American friend "I wanted to teach everyone about the American ideals of Freedom and Democracy, but all they wanted to know about was Baseball and Beat Culture!"

Recently we watched a video (via the internet) of a Christmas Church service from a church we visited in Osaka in October. It was fantastic, they really put a big effort into celebrating, so for the Japanese Christian minority Christmas is very important.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Hey Amber, good to see you commenting. Isn't it ironic that this country, with little Christian background have taken on (some aspects) of the holiday, and yet, American with a very strong Christian history, is shying away from using the words in case they offend someone. Very sad!

Hey James, good to see you again!Yeah, I have to admit, it isn't all bad here. One of the best places to go to get a feeling of the Christmas spirit is Kobe. The illumination which was started by a priest to raise everyone's spirits after the tragedy of the earthquake is awe inspiring.

One of my Japanese friends is Christian and Wayne and I had dinner with him a few days after Christmas. I though, well here's someone that will understand the holiday. He told however, he doesn't really celebrate it, as his father passed away on Christmas morning a number of years ago. So sad!

kitkabbit said...

Sadly I know just what you mean.. it's really a cardboard xmas!