“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.” ~Edna Ferber
“A good conscience is a continual Christmas.” ~Benjamin Franklin
“Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.” ~Carol Nelson
Christmas is one of the holidays that has most changed in Okinawa since my first here in 1999. Back then, while not uncommon to see some Christmas items in the major department stores in December, it was uncommon to see wide-spread Christmas decorations and certainly surprising if a western Christmas carol was heard, especially in English. Almost 15 years ago, what actually struck us most in terms of western traditions that had been imported to Japan was how utterly westernized weddings in Japan had become!
However, this Christmas in 2013 has been a real shock…in a pleasant yet strange 9-volt battery-on-the-tongue kindda way. We are astounded at just how much more of our Christian holiday that the Okinawans and Japanese have smuggled from the West. From the standard Christmas carol cannon in English played in almost every commercial venue (Rudolph is much more enjoyable in Japanese for some reason), to the sheer amount of stores, organizations and segment of the populace choosing to actively participate in seasons greetings, one could argue that our holiday spirit thrives innocently and cheerfully here in Okinawa, Japan.
However, what exactly does that spirit mean??
For starters, Christmas here is not religious in nature, much like their “Christian-themed” weddings, the ones complete with crosses and long-trained white flowing gowns. In a cliché, Christmas here is…for lovers. It is a couples’ holiday (but becoming more family oriented), much more akin to our Valentine’s Day than of any other type of spiritual ceremony or ritual.
“Single Hell, Single Hell….” It would make a nice seasonal ring-tone.
But think about it this way; replace the notions of a Christmas turkey and caroling through illuminated neighborhoods…with buckets of “Christmas Chicken” and well-dressed lovers on a date partaking in a local holiday “illumination” and you’ve got it about right.
You see, in the 1970s, KFC – yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken – started to aggressively market itself as the chicken of choice as the culinary Christmas craving, which has become a much more broad representation of our (western) holiday. It worked; when we visited KFC about two months ago, there were already large in-store displays about ordering holiday meals, and the statue of Colonel Sanders out front (which all the KFCs have here) was already in a Santa costume. It’s odd to think about the God of Chicken (the Colonel has successfully approximated deity status in Japan) as a surrogate for Santa, but in a weirdly Japanese way, that’s exactly what he is here!
Another culinary holiday tradition here centers on a “Christmas Cake,” which is generally a store-bought (see a commercialized theme going here?), white cake topped with strawberries and often other garnishes which spank of the season, resulting in the prototypical red, white and green colors which visually represent Christmas so well. At least where it snows and there are evergreen pines, which for the geographically challenged, does NOT include Okinawa. Here in Okinawa you will find a small, local bakery in almost every neighborhood, and these shops literally pump out these cakes during this time of year. I’ve heard rumors that the Okinawans compare people without a love on Christmas as about as sad as a leftover, unsold Christmas Cake: while still attractive on the outside, stale tasting on the inside! Lovers, such revolting people…. Let them eat cake!!
Finally, one of the biggest things to do on Okinawa during this season is to visit an “illumination,” one sure way to tell that winter is at hand on a sub-tropical Pacific island! These events are held all over the island, from private venues, to the major resort hotels, to some of the more popular themed and touristy attractions. Illuminations provide a true glimpse of just how the Japanese interrupt our traditional and long-standing Christmas culture, complete with accurate if not humorous portrayals of Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, along with all the other Christmas elements and characters you could ever imagine…and then a few more.
We attended the Okinawa Zoo Children’s Land “Christmas Fantasy,” an annual, one-of-a-kind holiday spectacle held the week before and after Christmas. Here the landscape, in the middle of dense urban sprawl, is truly transformed into a wintry (or at least chilled & rainy) wonderland, where snow blowers produce snowfall on the walkways, pictures can be taken with real snowmen, and the kids can even go sledding or spoil for a snowball fight. They also host a “unique” laser show which is both weirdly corny and wildly fun as only the Japanese can produce. While it rained steadily in a blowing gale the night we visited, the park remained crowded with couples well-dressed and clearly on more formal dates; it’s amazing the places that Japanese women will and do wear heels. Carnival and state fair-like games, food and candies were plentiful, and I was soooooo excited to have our picture taken with a true Japanese Santa…who was tucked away, hidden in a dark alcove that built our suspense…who turned out to be…white…American…and from the Lancaster Dutch Country in Pennsylvania!
Yep, as we entered the tent for our turn, I peered with all my might to see what the Okinawans would put forth as Mr. Claus. Would he be worthy? How would he sound with a Japanese accent? Could they find a guy larger than life, or at least over 6 foot and 200 pounds to properly pull off the rule? As all these queries were racing around my head right alongside the sugarplums (and who knows what those are anyhow?), I hear, in a distinctly mid-western yet American accent, “Merry Christmas.” What a tick!! What the frack? I respond, “Hey, that sounds mighty American!” The response, which tinkered on stealing Santa away from me AGAIN, was, “Yup, straight from the Dutch Country in Lancaster County….” What are the odds….
We had planned to attend the Itoman Wine Farm “Peace Illumination Festival” in Itoman City today, but the weather kept us away as of publishing (winter storm…less the snow and ice, oh, and loss of power and whatnot). This annual event hosts the largest illumination at 1.3 million lights, representing the population of Okinawa, which carry the people’s collective hopes for peace to the world. Itoman City and the entire southern part of Okinawa Island were subjected to fierce battles at the end of World War II and were the scene of horrific carnage, and the area is dotted with peace monuments such as the Himeyuri Monument and Peace Memorial Park. Thus, this festival recognizes the awfulness of a savage past while displaying a radiant hope for the future.
While gifts are not exchanged per se on Christmas or in relation to our own gift-giving tradition as a spiritual birthday celebration, the Japanese do have an end-of-year gift giving tradition called oseibo. But don’t confuse this with the mid-summer gift-giving custom called ochugen! In Japan, it’s custom to give gifts – or have major department stores or the Post Office deliver them – in December (usually by the 20th) to co-workers, bosses, relatives, teachers, and close friends. Generally, these gifts consist of traditional hams, fancy cooking oils, gift certificates, higher-end beer, gourmet coffee, Asian seasonings, Okinawan seaweed, and perhaps even seafood and unique fruit arrangements. It seems everyone has their version of fruitcake!
The presents generally cost anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen (roughly $30-$100). An interesting note about oseibo is that the most expensive gifts are usually reserved for bosses! Talk about awkward by American standards: “I’m sorry Naomi, your end-of-year gift wasn’t up to my standards, we we’re going to have to let you go….” On each oseibo gift is placed a thin paper called noshi on which the word “Oseibo” is written. The Japanese are, if anything, elegant and graceful in most ritualistic traditions they exercise.
Although we are indeed “home” now here in Okinawa, well rooted and seeking our own niche, I can’t help but also feel homesick this time of year. Although our Far-Eastern inspired Christmas “half-tree,” the subject of an upcoming blog of its own, was certainly wonderful to plan, shop for, and decorate with Jody, it was not shared with very many. We did start a new traditional Christmas Even dinner by eating Sushi at Mihama’s American Village with a few close friends, something akin to the Parker family going out for Chinese Duck visa vie A Christmas Story…less the tragedy involving the dogs eating our non-existent turkey. And while we do have Christmas lights up on our 5th story balcony, and as entertaining and wonderful the Okinawan illuminations are, I still find myself drawn to “home” and the culturally, spiritually rooted traditions that have become so ingrained over almost five decades. Jody and I will always find ways to celebrate on our own as Lovers so often do. Just know that our friends and family are sorely missed this time of year, a time when friends and families should strive to be together. If not in body, certainly in mind and spirit.
So, in the spirit of the season wherever you happen to be, ring up some coworkers, cohort with your cronies, share an intimate moment with a loved-one, or just cuddle with a favorite furry friend. Whatever you do, just do all you can to make sure you never become one of those dreaded leftover, unsold stale Christmas cakes!!
- As Japan’s Economic Pie Grows, Christmas Cakes May Shrink (blogs.wsj.com)
- Very Merry KFC Christmas to you a la Japan (kanzensakura.com)
- Christmas in Japan (travelingwithdana.wordpress.com)
- Merry Kurisumasu! Or: Why do Japanese People eat KFC for Christmas? (violetcloutman.wordpress.com)
- KFC: The Japanese taste of Christmas (sophiesjapanblog.com)