Saturday, December 31, 2005

Christmas Abroad

A few days before Christmas, Maureen received an email from one of our friends back in Cleveland, who wrote “honestly, I’ll be a little glad when the holidays are over.” I wonder for how many folks those sentiments ring truer than any jingling, silver bells.

It’s been a few years since I really got excited for Christmas. Of course it lost something for me in my later childhood, as it does for most of us, but it also lost something for me when I started working. There were never enough vacation days, the ones I did have always seemed to go toward photography, and so ended the lifelong tradition of long Christmas breaks with plenty of time to spend with all the people who had continued to make the holidays such a special time.

With three sets of family to visit, all four or more hours away from Cleveland, Christmas became a whirlwind of always going, going, going, and never just sitting. . . or just being. And I know that’s what the holidays have come to be for a lot of people. I had three Christmases like that, and I didn’t particularly enjoy any of them.

I was never with Maureen for any of those Christmases, either. Her family is far more scattered than mine, and we agreed early in our dating to continue spending the holidays in our separate ways. I didn’t particularly enjoy that, either.

It took coming to the other side of the world, but Maureen and I finally spent a Christmas together. I think it will be the first of many for us. Christmas in Japan is very much a couples holiday, much like Valentine’s Day in the U.S. Japanese couples exchange lavish gifts, eat specially-made strawberry Christmas cakes, go on intimate dates and do whatever else couples do together. So, naturally, Maureen and I joined a bunch of her English-teaching friends for a traditional western Christmas gathering at the home of Lindsay and Jamie, a Canadian couple living in Sapporo (Hokkaido’s capital and largest city) and in their third and final year of the JET program. Lindsay is due with their first child in May, and they will return to Winnipeg in August. They plan on giving the baby a Japanese middle name.

Prior to meeting them, Maureen and I visited downtown Sapporo, where I did every bit of this year’s Christmas shopping (a few small gifts for her while she was getting a haircut) in two hours. We sipped lattes at Starbucks, wandered through the “White Illumination” light display in Oduri Park and watched the fourth Harry Potter movie (English, with Japanese subtitles). We spent the night of the 23rd with Ben and Allison, a just-graduated, just-married Midwestern couple in their first year of the JET program.

On Christmas Eve, we rode across town through the blowing snow with them in their car (on loan from another JET who went home for the holidays) to Jamie and Lindsay’s apartment. Lindsay made two turkeys (7 and 4-1/2 pounds – everything is smaller here), stuffing, Russian potato dumplings, mashed potatoes and plates of Christmas cookies. The guests (10 of us in total) brought appetizers, vegetables and desserts. It was the only day I have been in Japan and felt genuinely stuffed. When we could move again, instead of going out Christmas caroling, we went out for karaoke (when in Rome…).

Long after St. Nick should have stopped by (maybe we were all on the “naughty” list this year), we drifted off to sleep on futons spread on the tatami floors. Five of us joined the slumber party: Maureen and myself, Ben and Allison, and Amy, another first year JET who would have much rather stayed with a bunch of other couples than woken up alone on Christmas morning. I certainly couldn’t blame her for that.

Maureen and I arrived back in Muroran late in the evening on Christmas day. She made me hide in her room while she wrapped my presents, then had me come out to open them. We also had a few gifts sent from the States (not to mention some far-too-large money orders from some members of my family who shall remain nameless), but our pile of presents was scaled well to the size of our Christmas “tree,” a gift of the Gotos, a very well-traveled and welcoming Japanese family who live an hour away in Tomakomai. They brought Maureen to meet my ferry and already have had us over for dinner and a night at their home. Fuyuki, a high school biology teacher, bestowed upon us a potted plant from his collection on which we strung lights and hung origami stars and cranes. So our pile of gifts was rather small. And we didn’t mind one bit. We had each other, plus the love of our families, sent across wires and in Christmas cards over a continent and over an ocean.

Our families. They were the only things missing from our Christmas. As we lay down to bed on Christmas night, Maureen turned to me and said, “It’s Christmas morning in the U.S. Everyone is just waking up.” And as we drifted off to sleep, we both would have gladly endured a full season of holiday stress to be there at her dad’s house in Carbondale, at my grandma’s house in St. Albans, and share that morning with them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your Christmas, and all the best in 2006. Of all the blogs I read, very few are more anticipated than yours!