I like Christmas in Japan. Decorations are not in full swing till a week or two before the 25th, and they are taken down the night of the 25th to make way for traditional Japanese New Year’s ornaments. No matter how many times I’ve been told that Christmas actually begins on December 25 and doesn’t end until the Sunday after Epiphany, which could be as late as January 13, I still feel impatient when Christmas songs are sung and played after their sold-by date. Christmas in Japan is as it should be — a one day event with a long foreplay.
I like the fact that if Christmas falls on a weekday, it is a regular workday. There are no expectations to feel a particular way, other than maybe have a craving for fried chicken, strawberry shortcake, and other Japanese Christmas dinner staples. If Christmas were just like any other day, then maybe it would be easier to — as the popular saying goes — “make everyday like Christmas.”
I don’t remember ever believing Santa Claus was real. The one year my sisters and I got presents from Santa, they came with a note that looked suspiciously like my mother’s script. The following years, we got more practical cash envelopes. Growing up, we didn’t even bother putting up Christmas decorations. “Let’s drive around and look at other people’s Christmas lights. Isn’t it great we get to enjoy their decorations while saving on our electric bill?” I love my dad and I inherited the full spectrum of his Chinese thrift-associated genes.
Then I had my own kids.
We have been very lucky in the past years to have family and friends send presents for our kids that we pass off as Santa’s gifts that we never had to buy anything for them. But two days before Christmas this year, my husband whispered, “What do we do? We have no presents.” His mom sent a package that probably won’t arrive till after the New Year. I said, we will figure something out.
On the 24th, on our way to the supermarket, the kids and I stopped at Daiso (the ¥100 Shop or the equivalent of the Dollar Store). They dashed to the toy section where they enjoy looking around and pointing out what looks fun. My six year old daughter showed me a make-your-own kaleidoscope kit — “it’s magic,” she said — and my four year old son pointed to an arm-length machine gun. “I think Santa will get this for me,” he said knowingly. “Oh I don’t know about that, Honey. Santa doesn’t do guns,” I replied. “Then maybe this dinosaur. I like dinosaurs,” he said without missing a beat. And like our usual routine, we leave the shop with nothing other than two pairs of socks for myself to replace my holey ones. “I need new socks too Mama,” my daughter said. “I didn’t see anything in your size. Maybe next time?”
That night, my husband dropped me off at Daiso on the pretext of getting sponges I forgot to get that morning while he and kids went to get gas for our space heaters. I rushed to buy the kaleidoscope, the dinosaur, two pairs of socks and two puffy snacks for each child. I thought that assortment should fill up a paper bag nicely. And I didn’t forget the sponges, which the kids dutifully checked when they came around to pick me up.
Before heading to bed, the kids left some potato chips and a tiny sugar cookie in a bowl and a glass of water for Santa. “I’m not sure Santa likes potato chips,” I said, thinking that we will have to eat those chips first thing in the morning. “Santa will be very hungry and very tired so I think he will eat them,” said our daughter.
Early the next morning, we wrapped up their gifts. I put the things we bought from the ¥100 shop in two brown paper bags and scribbled their names on it. I took out a tiny baby set (i.e. baby, bath, pram, weighing scale, milk bottle, baby powder etc.) I received from a friend but never showed the kids before and we laid them out on the table. My husband thankfully took care of the potato chips and cookie.
Our son woke up first. He spied the new things on the table. “Santa came!,” he croaked in his I-just-woke-up voice. It wasn’t long before his sister woke up and her sleepy eyes widened. “I told you Santa would eat everything,” she declared. They opened their presents.
“Wow!” “Santa was watching us in the store! He knew what I wanted!” “Socks! Santa knew I need new socks!” “I love this dinosaur!” “This is the magic thing I wanted.” “Yummy snacks!”
My husband and I looked at each other. “Now that was for us,” he said.
Later, I mused over our Christmas morning, “I wonder until when we can get away with simple gifts like that and a budget less than ¥1000 ($10) total. They looked so happy.” “I don’t know… remember the girl’s birthday?” my husband asked. For our daughter’s 6th birthday this year, I overheard the kids discussing which of their books and toys she wanted to receive for her birthday. A few minutes later, our son approached me with a well-worn book about ballet. “This is what R wants for her birthday. Do you have a bag to put it in?” We found a gift bag and tied it up. He showed her that his gift for her is ready. After we sang the birthday song and R blew out her candles, he took out his gift bag and gave it to her. She opened it up, said thank you and feigned surprise at the ballet book. Maybe we are doing some things right.
Later that evening, as we sat around the heater chatting, our daughter pointed to the paper bags with their names scribbled on it. “How does Santa know our names?” Before we could come up with a good explanation, she said, “I know! He must have a computer with the list. Our names are on the list. Santa must know a lot of languages so he can give gifts to kids all over the world.”
Then she said, “Santa gave less gifts this year. Last year we got a lot of gifts.” I didn’t think she would remember. I wasn’t sure it was disappointment I heard in her voice.
“Why do you think that is?,” my husband asked
“Ah, I know! Because he gave us lots and lots of gifts last year, he has less stuff for us this year. I really wanted a scooter. Ami-chan said a scooter can’t fit inside Santa’s bag but Saki-chan got a scooter anyway so I don’t think that’s true. But I think Santa doesn’t have any scooters left, that’s why.”
Satisfied with her own explanation of how Santa ran out of stock, she and her brother happily played with the tiny baby set.
Sometimes, I wonder if, by giving kids fancy toys and expensive gadgets, we rob them of the chance to find happiness and experience magic in the simplest things.
After breakfast on Christmas Day, we headed to Tokyo to meet up with my husband’s daughter and her boyfriend. We went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in spontaneous solidarity with our Jewish and non-Christian brothers and sisters. After lunch, we strolled through the crowded shopping district of Omotesando, I felt increasingly discontent. It was a familiar feeling, but one that I haven’t felt in a long time since we moved the countryside. My own perfectly comfortable clothes, shoes and bag felt shabby compared to the ritzy ones displayed in shop windows. A nagging voice told me that I could get rid of that feeling by buying that gorgeous ¥7,000 ($70) Irish knit I tried on in one of the stores. I walked away before getting sucked in and ending up with buyer’s remorse.
On the train ride home, the hard lines of the city gave way to the gentle slopes of the mountains. As home came into view, my discontent receded. And I thought, I have everything I need.
I looked at my two precious kids, one twirling her assembled kaleidoscope and one dreaming up dinosaur battles. I looked at my husband who, the night before, gave me two presents: One was a t-shirt from the musical The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee, in which he proposed to me seven years ago. He told me the story of how he met one of the cast members and that person gave him this cast only t-shirt. His other gift was a book he wrote about me and our relationship. He started writing it a month before after we had a fight, and he made a quiet commitment to create space for me. He wrote whenever he could on his long commute to and from work.
“To write about another is to become vulnerable to one’s own thoughts and emotions about that person. You think and reflect what they mean to you and how much you get wrong. It is especially challenging knowing that one day, the other person will read these words and wonder, ‘Did he really ever know me?’ ‘Was I wasting my time?’,” his book began. As I turned the pages, I understood why he felt shy giving it to me and could not bear to see my face while I read. I was moved to tears. His present was not the book itself but all that time he spent thinking about me and us and preserving those fleeting moments in beautiful words. His present was his allowing himself to be vulnerable with me, not knowing how I would receive these words.
I have everything I need.