Spending Christmas abroad is tough business. I don’t really know how to put it into words, but something is just missing in the air. Maybe it’s the commercialism. Maybe it’s the exchange of presents, the Christmas parties, or even the cheesy songs on the radio.
Probably, it’s just the plain and simple fact that no one gives a crap about Christmas in Asia.
As I often mention on here, my life in Niigata was different from the typical foreigner. I was extremely isolated. Due to various falling outs with other foreigners, I was all alone. I had no one to share Christmas with.
Christmas in Japan
“Mary-sensei” all of the cashiers at 7-11 knew my name, with this one being my particular favorite. “How about a Christmas cake? We have so many flavors; chocolate, white and strawberry–and look at all the sizes!
In Japan, cake on Christmas is a thing.
“I think you would really enjoy having a cake to share with someone special on Christmas day” she winked.
“I have no one special to share it with,” I replied glumly, looking through the cake brochures.
“Oh…..” the cashier looked defeated. Suddenly, I felt a pang of guilt for being so rude to my favorite cashier. She’s just doing her job, I thought. She’s just trying to make the quota for Christmas cakes. I shouldn’t take my Christmas blues out on her.
I caved in.
“Oh alright,” I smile at her and point to the chocolate cake on page 3. “Order me one of these…. while you ring up these three cans of Asahi.”
On Christmas Eve I picked up the cake, went to my apartment, fired up my kotatsu (heated table) and, with a beer in one hand and a fork in the other, I ate my Christmas cake. Alone. The Japanese TV was blaring some slapstick comedy talk show, and I could hear the wind outside howling and the rain and snow pelting my house horizontally.
I felt a pit of loneliness in my gut. Here I was, utterly alone in no-man’s-land Japan where no one, and I mean no one, cared about Christmas. My family was an ocean away, the Christmas movies I used to watch so lovingly on TV were replaced with terrible Japanese variety shows; and instead of having pumpkin pie at the dinner table with family I was having beer and chocolate cake on a tatami mat.
Instead of shed tears, I ate my sorrows.
I devoured the cake in 20 minutes. All by myself.
Then, my phone rang.
“Mary!” the temple lady, one of my best friends and a near mother-figure, called me up.
“What are you doing? It’s Christmas Eve–come to my house and spend the night here with us.”
I call her temple lady because….well, she lives in a temple. Her husband is a practicing buddhist priest and she helps clean and upkeep the temple.
I braved the winter storm outside on my bike and made it to my temple lady’s house, soaking wet and covered white in snow. After a hot shower, I walked into the dining room to find KFC (yet another Japanese Christmas tradition) and cake beautifully arranged on the dinner table. Although it wasn’t turkey and potatoes, it still put a smile on my face. The grandmother and temple lady both gave me beautifully wrapped presents for Christmas, and I was deeply touched.
With joy in my heart I ate yet another Christmas cake (but this time with company), and went to sleep, our stomach full of chicken and frosting.
GONG. GONG. GONG.
I leaped out of my futon as another gong resounded throughout the house. I was sleeping in the attic of the house attached to the temple, and in between the hum of the buddhist chants and cymbals, the storm outside continued to pummel the house. This house, probably around since the age of the samurais, shuddered with each gust of wind. I could feel the cool draft emanating in from the closed window.
Another gong resounded.
I definitely wasn’t home for Christmas.
“Sorry if the gongs woke you up,” my temple lady apologized sweetly as I walked downstairs, sleepy eyed in my pajamas. “We have a very important ceremony today.”
I stepped into the tatami living room to join obaachan, or grandma, underneath the kotatsu watching TV. She ushered me over and poured a cup of green tea, pushing a few tangerines and manjyu (Japanese tea snacks) in my face.
We watched TV underneath that kotatsu for hours. I fell asleep, and woke up hours later with obaachan near my side.
It almost felt like home. Being lazy in a warm, cozy place. With family. Doing nothing, yet enjoying the company of another human being.
Later that day, I was invited to the vegetarian Buddhist lunch and dinner for celebrations and partook my share with humility. I helped my temple lady clean up and spent another night at her home. Before falling asleep, I could hear her son playing piano downstairs, the sweet soft melody of Ghibli’s Howl Moving Castle serving as my lullaby to bed.
Instead of a Christmas tree, I had a kotatsu; there was no turkey, but there was KFC, and although I didn’t hear carols or Christmas songs, there was the rhythmic chant of Buddhist worshipers echoing throughout the temple and anime music.
It wasn’t a traditional Christmas in the slightest, but it was still Christmas.
An unforgettable Christmas with family—my Japanese family.
Sadly, since my last visit to Japan, my Japanese ojichan (grandpa) passed away, and obaachan (grandmother)’s health has greatly deteriorated. I spent many, many, many nights listening to their stories from World War II and its aftermath and recovery.
I hope you’re happy and healthy this Christmas, Obaachan.
Home for the Holidays
As I type this, I’m in the airport waiting for my flight to go back to Salt Lake City. To snow.
My family is a tiny one. We are but a family of four, and we don’t really do much on Christmas except eat and laze around in our pajamas–yet I love it.
I hope wherever you are, whether your country of residence celebrates Christmas or not, you have a wonderful day filled with good food, good friends and family, and good music–cause really, that’s all you need to have a good day.
Merry Christmas everyone!
How do you feel about spending Christmas abroad? Any Christmas plans this year?