When I was a small child, I would often join my father and little sister in making fun of my mother for putting on Christmas music when it was still November. She’d start dusting the living room, breaking out the big boxes of decorations, and put on A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Mommm,” I’d say. “It’s too early for Christmas music! This is embarrassing.” She’d smile as she unwrapped a snow globe or a decorative candle and say in a sing-song voice, “I know~”
This year I started playing Christmas music in the beginning of November.
I try really hard to keep Christmas alive for myself here. It’s not like Japan doesn’t celebrate or decorate – the blinking lights above Odori Street prove otherwise. But something’s missing. I know the religious element is absent, but I’m a Catholic in name only, so that doesn’t bother me. It could be that I miss the cozy feeling in the air that you get when everyone around you looks forward to going home for the holidays, but the Japanese do that for New Year’s, so it’s not that either.
Maybe it’s just simply a lack of nostalgia for the holiday here. It’s changing, but for the most part, people didn’t spend their childhoods looking forward to Christmas. Children nowadays are taught to believe in Santa Claus, but I don’t know if it’s the same. I do think parents buy a few presents for their children, and there is a traditional Christmas meal in Japan called “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” but none of the adults have memories of writing letters to Santa Claus or shopping in malls covered in evergreen and sparkle.
I remember the slow march of time in elementary school, where I slowly started noticing all the signs that Santa wasn’t real – kids yelling that out on the bus, hearing it on TV – but I was determined to believe in him. I could still block out reality. But I grew too old to do that anymore.
“Dad,” I said, around 8 or 9 years old. We were watching TV together, and it wasn’t even Christmas time. “Dad…Santa isn’t real, is he?”
My father looked at me silently for a moment before saying calmly, “No, he isn’t.”
I sighed and looked down. I had known for a long time, deep down, hadn’t I? I wasn’t even really upset, not really. I just felt like I had lost something, something that I would never get back. Magic wasn’t real. At least, not the kind where a man could use flying reindeer to visit every single house in the world in one night.
My dad paused a second before saying, “Don’t tell your sister.”
That was my first step into adulthood, I think.
(first step of many, many steps)
Ever since I’ve come to Iwate, I’ve tried very hard to do things that remind me of Christmas, so at this point I have a few customs of my own. I decorate my apartment with some cheap garland and a small fake tree. I try to have friends over for a Christmas dinner (except, I didn’t end up doing that this year, oops!). I write Xmas/New Year’s cards for everyone. It does, at some point, feel like a chore; I don’t think I really got in the spirit this year even though I forced myself to listen to enough Christmas music. But I’m old enough to know now that sometimes you really get into the spirit of things, and other years it just sort of … happens.
Every December I rush around Japan trying to find gifts for everyone back home, trying to keep everything to a “Japan” theme while also trying to keep an eye on my baggage weight (did you know that the fine for overweight bags on international travel is one hundred and fifty dollars?!?). It’s always really hard for me because I have no idea what people want and I suck at picking out gifts. I mean, a) I’m not around to hear snippets of conversations in which people say, “Oh I’d love to have that!” and b) I’m a narcissist. Also, “a very japan xmas” is getting to be pretty tired after my fourth year here. It’s time to start picking normal presents again, I think.
It was fun and fresh when I was in Kyoto. I didn’t even spend very much, but there are so many Japanese souvenir shops there with cute, “Japanese” presents. Clay cats waving their paws in the air. Scrolls of geisha strolling by ponds, cheaply printed. Boxes and boxes of prepackaged snacks. This was the first time I’d be going back home after coming to Japan for the first time, and I very very much didn’t want to go. I was so nervous that something would go wrong, and that I wouldn’t be able to come back. Only 4 months here, and I had stepped over a threshold that I could no longer cross back over into.
My last Sunday before going home, I biked over to Teramachi, the shopping district about a half hour from my dorm. It was cloudy, and maybe even lightly snowing. Everything was grey, even my sweatshirt, and there weren’t many people mulling about either. In a small, dusty old shop, I picked out a small mouse ornament for my best friend back home and sat down for a moment in the small courtyard in the middle of the avenue. I was in a funny mood.
In the space of four months, everything had changed. I didn’t really know yet, that there was no road back home again.
I kicked the stand up on my bike, my basket full of trinkets for my family. Almost time to go.
There was snow in Kyoto, and my life was ahead of me.