Saturday, December 23, 2006
The Christmas Spirit (or lack thereof)
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.
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.