Monday, December 15, 2008

Reflecting on the Busiest Time of the Year

Despite my birthday falling in the summer, the end of the year was always my favorite time of year as a child. I loved the continuation of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's celebrations and benefits (candy, good food, presents and lots of vacation time listed among those) and the stimulation of the decorations, music, visits with relatives and friends and the many tastes of each holiday. Let's face it, children get all the perks without the headaches of extra shopping, cooking and cleaning, wondering how to pay for this and that, the juggling of who uses the car, when, and the frantic race against time to try to send out Christmas cards before Dec. 25th!

I moved to Japan fresh out of graduate school, and at the age of 24. I was married by 27 and had a baby 14 mos. later. I was thrust into the adult world of "creating the magic" at holiday time while simultaneously dealing with the culture shock of living in a country that didn't celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas much at all, and New Year's in a very different way than the US. There was very little celebratory support on the part of society, and my husband didn't have any sense of reverence for the traditions I was single-handedly trying to maintain within our home (for our family's sake). In Japan December 25th is a business day, like any other!

Very soon I realized how much work went into a Thanksgiving dinner, and how alone I felt in trying to stir up some holiday atmosphere in our home, because outside the front door there was absolutely none! Holidays lost their sense of magic and gratification. I was constantly battling the disappointment of my own expectations, brought into this time of year innocently, from my rich abundance of happy memories. I spent the majority of my son's growing-up years, knocking myself out without feeling like it was worth it.

For a few years I baked a big turkey dinner and we all enjoyed the meal, but not so much as to justify the days of preparation and expense it required. No one said, I can't wait to eat your sage stuffing, or, Golly I can't wait to have some turkey sandwiches! It was how I felt, but my pleasure wasn't big enough to balance the energy expenditure. By the time I decided to stop doing it, I resented my family's attitude and had a big chip on my shoulder.

I made an Advent calendar like my mom had made for us when I was a child, and dutifully hung up each day's ornament on the banner's felt tree, wondering why my son didn't show any interest in doing it himself. I played Christmas music at home and in the car for six weeks before the day itself, hung up Christmas lights all over our living room, a wreath on the door, holiday towels in our bathroom. We opened presents on Christmas morning, and I made a special pancake brunch each year. I tried REALLY HARD, and I kept on trying for more than a decade, but no fruit came of it. My son was willing to participate, but not overly enthusiastically. If I cut something out, he seemed as indifferent and uninterested as my husband always was. I fought a losing battle. And I'm sorry to say, it snuffed out my motivation to keep on trying (just for my own sake) completely.

Now, each of those holidays are the time of year when I am teaching my students about American culture. I pull out old photos from my childhood, where I'm dressed up for Halloween, my family is sitting around the table on Thanksgiving, or the presents are piled up under the tree. I pull out the Christmas music to play in the background for Christmas parties, where we all make holiday crafts, or sample goodies I've baked to share. It isn't the same, but it is in itself a way to celebrate the holidays. My church always has a special concert or service held on the Saturday evening before Dec. 25th, and I am busy helping the choir get ready for that, and baking treats to display for the refreshments afterwards.

December is my busiest month, by far. And that's without madly decorating my home, baking Christmas cookies to have on hand for when company drops in, or going shopping for loads of gifts. I bake for classes and church. I teach the nativity story to my students, and lead them in Jingle Bells or We Wish You a Merry Christmas with my guitar. I change my Christmas costume jewelry daily (as all who see it get such a kick out of it).

The atmosphere is more subdued, but it exists. Over the years, Japanese society has begun to embrace Halloween and Christmas with more energetic interest. So it's not as lonely as before. And I'm at peace about it, although I feel sort of guilty that an entire chest of drawers I have in storage (full to the brim with Christmas-related STUFF) is never touched, and a tree is never set up anymore. My husband and I never exchange any gifts, but I do try to prepare some for my son! I have faithfully kept up my tradition of sending out a Christmas letter to a large mailing list of friends all over the world, as well as my students and friends in Japan. And I look forward to the Skype call from my gathered family in the states.

My files of past Christmas letters sent...

Let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a most happy and gratifying holiday season! It will be challenging to maintain a happy tone this year, with the economic upheaval in the states, but count your blessings and pray with me for new winds of change to blow in the coming year!

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