I opened my Christmas presents two days early this year. As an adult, I can make those kinds of decisions.
As a child growing up in Iowa, we opened up presents on Christmas morning. That was the rule. We had several other traditions. On Christmas Eve Mom made chili and Dad cooked his homemade oyster soup. Since we were picky eaters, Dad ate his soup alone while the rest of us chowed down on chili and cornbread. Then we would drive around town and look at the Christmas lights.
Our stockings always included an orange and a small box of cereal, which we would eat for breakfast. Then we woke up Mom and Dad and giddily unwrapped the rest of our haul.
Even as we moved off to college we continued these traditions. Even after I started dating my Japanese girlfriend Lisa, who is now my wife.
For winter break Lisa always flew home to Tokyo, so during the first four years of our courtship, we spent Christmas apart.
To compound the sense of longing, Lisa’s birthday is on Christmas Eve.
Finally in 2008 I broke family tradition and I flew to Tokyo to be with Lisa on her birthday.
To say the Christmas culture in Japan is different from America would be a gross understatement.
The prevailing religion is Buddhism. Thus, the annual family holiday is held on New Year’s Day. New Year’s Eve is spent with family. In the traditional Japanese household, the mother spends all day Dec. 31 preparing the osechi. This is a box filled with snacks, such as fish cakes, sweet potato and boiled seaweed. It is also a tradition to eat soba noodles on New Year’s Eve, because their long form represents long life.
With the ringing of the New Year, there is no big celebration. You watch the annual variety program called kohaku and go to bed promptly after midnight. Then on the morning of the First you visit the shrine. Presents are also given to children, however, the presents aren’t your typical Toys R Us fare. Children are instead given envelopes filled with cash in the excess of $100.
So when I visited Japan on Dec. 24, 2008, I discovered the country was lacking in Christmas spirit.
In Japan, Christmas is more of a commercial event. Every Starbucks in Tokyo was decorated to the hilt with holiday decorations on Nov. 1, and Christmas music was piped through the speakers at full volume.
KFC and McDonald’s ran Christmas specials. KFC has pulled off quite the holiday marketing coup by convincing all of the Japanese that you are supposed to eat fried chicken on Christmas.
A skinny, young Japanese Santa stood outside the Calbee’s toy store promoting a holiday sale. There wasn’t a nativity scene in sight.
Department stores did offer to wrap presents in Christmas wrapping paper and they decorated the store fronts with a million lines of stringed lights and Christmas trees. In fact, that is about the only aspect of Christmas Japan has grasped on to – the lights. Every city in Japan advertises their illumination displays.
This year Tokyo Station, which reopened after a seven year
renovation project, advertised the heck out of their holiday illuminations. Son Dec. 24, Lisa’s birthday, we decided to go check it out.
Along with everybody else.
And because it was so busy, the good folks at Tokyo Station station shut down the display. The night before 100,000 people came to see the lights, causing traffic problems. So instead of shutting down traffic on Christmas Eve, they shut down the lights.
Unfortunately they didn’t tell anyone, so 100,000 disgruntled onlookers,
along with myself and my wife, who again, was celebrating her birthday, showed up to look at a dark train station.
I’m still a little bitter.
We did make the best of it, which is one of the reasons I love my wife. Instead of filing back on to the train along with everybody else, we took a nice stroll along the walkway surrounding the imperial palace.
The weather was crisp, but not too cool. Tokyo is quite balmy this time of year, with temperatures averaging in the 40s. It is usually a little rainy, but this week has been filled with sunshine.
So anyway, when we came home we decided to open our presents two days early.
The presents that my parents sent from Iowa had arrived at our apartment just 10 minutes after we returned home.
Because Christmas isn’t a recognized holiday in Japan, mail is still delivered on Christmas Eve, even at 8 o’clock at night (maybe it was Santa Claus in disguise?). The post office is also open on Christmas Day. In fact, Lisa had to go to work on Christmas Day.
The only reason she had work off on Christmas Eve is because Dec. 23 just happens to be the emperor’s birthday. But since that fell on a Sunday this year, the holiday was held on Monday, Dec. 24.
So we did our best to build the feeling of Christmas. I downloaded my favorite Christmas albums off of iTunes and they played on repeat for three days. We visited Lisa’s brother, Yuichi, on Christmas Eve. His wife Mika gave birth to their second son on Dec. 18. Lisa’s
birthday request was to spend the day with her new nephew Hiroto as well as their older son Takuto, who is 1.
Takuto was dressed up in a cute Santa Claus outfit. Mika’s mother served nabe soup, a cheesy shrimp casserole and we had Christmas cake.
When we got home that night, we opened the presents from Iowa. It was Dec. 24 in Japan, but
it was still Dec. 23 in America.
But at the end of the day, Christmas isn’t about one day of the year. It is about being with the ones you love, spreading cheer and growing together as a family, even with new members from the other side of the world.