Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Christmas Spirit (or lack thereof)

I wonder which present is for me?

The picture above is from Guild Wars. It's a screenshot of the game environment that was infused with Christmas as of December 21. The makers of the game know how to make the players feel special. In addition to the holiday motif that is added, you can take part in snowball fights, get drunk on eggnog, and collect candy cane shards and whole canes to be used for various purposes in the game.

This beats real life as neither eggnog nor candy canes can be had without a visit to a shop which specializes in selling to foreigners. In Tokyo, that's National Azabu Supermarket. It's sufficiently troublesome to go that one isn't inclined to go there unless there's a more compelling reason than seasonal treats. Also, there's no guarantee that they'll stock any particular item.

Mmmm. Tasty super-size gumdrops.

I wish I could say that the general atmosphere in Japan was 1/10th as good as what I get from a game. Spending Christmas in Japan is like being exposed only to the most commercial aspects of the holiday without any of the spirit-based aspects. I'm not talking about the religious angles as I'm no longer a Christian but rather about the emotional aspects.

While I'm fully aware that Christmas is very commercialized in the United States (and other western countries that celebrate it), there are usually some indications of emotional depth. People may be nicer at times or more helpful. You can perhaps even catch a whiff of the essence of the spirit of giving if you're lucky and not so mired in cynicism that you have the equivalent of a spiritual clothespin over your nose.

When I first arrived in Japan, I used to try and "make" a holiday for myself in spite of the shallow observance of it around me. I used to try and connect with people back home over the holidays and I'd decorate the apartment relatively lavishly. I'd go out of my way to make copious amounts of goodies for friends and coworkers. I'd special order a turkey expensively from the FBC deli and make a special meal.

After nearly a decade of sending out tons of Christmas cards and getting a smattering back, being around foreign coworkers who were indifferent to the holidays (or outright grumpy), having to work on Christmas day, and feeling increasingly disconnected from the U.S., I gave up. I can't even bring myself to take the decorations out of the closet this year, let alone put them up. The only thing I'm doing this year is make cookies for my husband to give his students and I'm having a lot of difficulty getting the energy to do that. I don't do it out of any sense of holiday spirit but mainly because I love my husband and want him to have the pleasure of doling out goodies to his students.

What I've learned is that there are limits to weaving a pocket of western culture in Japan and you hit them pretty hard around the holidays. There aren't really any Japanese holidays which have the same depth of sentiment as Christmas, not even among the Japanese themselves. In my lesson where I discuss every holiday throughout the year with students, none of them seem to have much of a serious affinity for any particular day although they do like the extended time off they get for New Year's vacation. So, it doesn't seem likely that I would be able to try to integrate myself more fully with the culture to find the sense I'm missing elsewhere.

It's rather depressing, to be honest. Still, at least I can run around with a bizarre spiky ice creature with an oddly happy-looking snowman head, drink virtual nog and get virtually drunk, and have virtual snowball fights. It's better than nothing, but not by much.


Helen said...

Oh no!

I do understand what you mean though. I think for the foreign women I know over here who have children it's a little bit easier to keep the Christmas Spirit going. They do it for them. I do it for my husband, but he doesn't really get it....despite him spending a Christmas in Canada with my family once. He was amazed by the festivities, but it's been a couple of years and the memory has faded.

Still, I try to keep Christmas going. I put up my tree, I send Christmas cards...and still get quite a few back....I decorated my school a little this year. I don't bake but that's more because of my dietary restrictions than anything else.

Before I got married I did work on Christmas day, because I didn't want to be alone. It paid off for me, because the man who became my hubby came into the Eikaiwa on a Christmas Day for the first time.

In any case....I wish you and your husband a Merry Christmas....I hope you have a lovely day.

Shari said...

Thank you for your kind words and comments, Helen. I also wish you and your family all the best.

I think working on Christmas day year in and year out and the lack of communication from people back home was the hardest part but you do find that people back home tend to forget that you were in their lives as they go about their business. It's particularly hard for them during the holidays because they're so harried anyway.

I think you've been over here for "only" 7 years now. My spirit suffered total breakdown this year but hung by a thread over the last two or so. I hope you do better than I though at holding on to it in the future (as you reach beyond the 15 year mark as I have).

Still, one can't argue that you got something good out of working Christmas day! ;-)

Helen said...

It'll be 10 years in March....

I hope you get your second wind soon.

I've always had a great bunch of friends. Most of us keep in touch by email. My parents were gone before I came over here so I mostly have my younger sister and her family.

This is a hard season to be away from "home" though, wherever that is. I'm not sure nowadays. When I'm here I miss Canada, when I'm in Canada, I miss Japan!