41. Finding Christmas in Tokyo

41. Finding Christmas in Tokyo

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

Finding Christmas in Tokyo

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

~Norman Vincent Peale

I stood outside the supermarket pretending to look for something in my bicycle basket. The other shoppers who came and went from the popular little grocery store next to the station in my Tokyo suburb pretended not to notice the tall, curly-haired foreign woman who was crying.

I was running a few errands on Christmas Eve, which was exactly the problem. I was in Japan, where Christmas is more akin to Valentine’s Day, an evening of romance, where cake with white frosting topped with strawberries (not in season) is served right after the fried chicken.

I scowled. Christmas isn’t fried chicken and strawberry cake. It’s cookies and ham, turkey and fruitcake, eggnog and homemade Chex mix. It’s my mother’s house and my annoying nieces and nephews. It’s my husband Richard’s grandmother’s dining room and the annual family talent show. It’s snow and bitter cold and navigating icy driveways in high heels. It’s Christmas specials and carols and shopping for presents. That’s Christmas.

Back home, I got a text from Richard saying he was going to the gym. That was at 4 p.m. Keiko, my Japanese tutor, had invited us for 5:30 p.m. So now we would be late. “Typical,” I harrumphed.

“Santa’s helper had some shopping to do,” Richard said coyly when he arrived. “That’s why I was late.”

“Santa’s helper should have planned ahead,” I thought, but said nothing.

We boarded the train for Keiko’s in silence. I was angry that he was late, and he was angry because I was angry for no apparent reason. “She said between 5:30 and 6:00,” he reminded me.

“Dozo, dozo! (Come in, come in!),” cried Keiko from somewhere deep inside the house. We let ourselves in just as she arrived to greet us. She beamed when I introduced Richard, and then opened her arms wide and stepped forward to hug him. I was astonished at how utterly perfect and natural it seemed.

The invitation to dinner and the Christmas service all came about when I had spotted a flyer on Keiko’s table a few weeks before. It had been five years since we moved to Japan and been home for the holidays. I jumped at the chance to see what Christmas in a Japanese church might be like.

Shortly before 7 p.m. we left the apartment with Keiko and her husband, Masa. A few minutes later we turned onto a small street where a Christmas tree glowed.

“Here’s the church,” said Masa as we arrived. The windows were dark, but the doors were open, and children in white robes mingled by a reception table where we each received a candle: a thin white taper with a carefully fashioned aluminum foil candle ring. I remembered these, along with the smell of musty hymnbooks, from my childhood, and I grinned, already feeling better. Two more steps and we entered the sanctuary, lit only by a few candles on the altar and the Advent Wreath where four bright red candles burned around a single white Christmas candle.

Masa led us to a pew in front. The tiny church held fewer than 100 people, its interior packed with pews, a small wooden altar, a baptismal font, and an organ. The choir, about fifteen people in white robes, crammed in behind it. We immediately began wrestling off coats, scarves and hats in the overheated space, another familiar holiday ritual.

Shortly after we sat down, the music began. As the children came forward in pairs to light their candles from those on the altar and then turned to light ours, a lump rose in my throat. A member of the congregation seated near the front walked to the lectern and began to read. At first I assumed it was a welcome message, but when I heard “David no machi (City of David),” it dawned on me that I was hearing The Christmas Story. As the organist played the introduction to the first hymn, “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” my tears started flowing. So happy to hear this music again after so long, I turned to Richard to make sure he knew, and saw his face wet with tears and felt his hand groping for mine.

It didn’t matter that everything was in Japanese or that the congregation was small. I’m not particularly religious, but sitting there I realized that this tradition was such a part of me… my identity and culture. For this moment it was simply peace and joy, a feeling of home when I needed it most. I cried more and smiled and sang the words in a mix of Japanese and English, so happy just to be there, to celebrate. For the first time in a long, long time, it felt like Christmas.

~Joan Bailey

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