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T’was the Night Before Christmas

On Christmas Eve we found out that good will and good intentions can bridge both the language and culture barrier. Also, Ho! Ho! Ho! and Merry Christmas is the same in any language. Christmas Day is just another day for the Japanese. Ah, but Christmas Eve is the day that matters. Little did we know how special it would be.

Christmas Eve we suited up as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Chas looked very cute with his pillow stuffed belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. He totally looked the part of a right jolly old elf, if a little on the tall side. Gunji-san came to pick us up right on time. (Japanese are always on time.) 6:40 sharp. He laughed when he saw us. Of course he did; we were laughing, too. Once we arrived at his house the fun began. The yard was decorated with Christmas lights in bright colors, and there was a small Christmas tree in the genkan (foyer). Inside the house we could hear the sounds of a TV and the voices of children. Santa quietly stepped up onto the porch, tapped at a sliding glass door, rang his jingle bells, and shouted Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas! Souta, Gunji-san’s 7 year old son, opened the curtain. His eyes went wide, his mouth flew open, and he bounced back off the window like he had hit the end of a bungie cord. A few seconds later the curtain parted again and he peeked out. When he saw Santa Claus standing there he threw the curtains back, smiled a huge smile, and started waving at Santa. By this time we were all laughing. I knew the evening was going to be a huge success.

It took a while for the 3 year old girl, Rio, to warm up to Santa. In the beginning, she hid behind Papa, and peeked shyly over his shoulder at the big red apparition in her living room. Once she found out Santa-san would open candy and other treats for her, she became very friendly. I guess Mama and Papa limit the treats. Not so, Santa-san. A never ending source of sweets is, undoubtedly, a 3 year olds idea of heaven. Santa asked of Souta, “iiko de itakana?” (Have you been a good little child?) Souta-chan hesitated, and, with a very serious face, looked up at his Mama for confirmation. She gave him permission to say, yes, he had been good. He looked back at Santa with a big smile, and eagerly nodded his head, eying Santa’s bag. To the delight of the children, Santa pulled lots of presents out of his sack. After giving out all the gifts, we were told that Mama, Souta-chan and Rio-chan had made a special Christmas cake. It was a beautiful cake. White cake with a cream filling stuffed with fresh strawberries and bananas. The frosting was whipped cream, and there were huge strawberries and slices of banana on top with a sprig of holly. The big surprise for us was that we were also expected to stay for dinner. Gunji’s wife had obviously asked him what she should serve Americans. Along with the Japanese soup, rice, and salad, she had made fried chicken and French fries. Gunji served us a very nice Bordeaux (Santa doesn’t have to drive; the reindeer do that.) We also had Japanese tea.

During the evening the children warmed up and started showing off for Santa. Gunji-san’s English is slightly better than my Japanese. However, he also has a computer program that does translation. When we reached a verbal impasse everyone laughed a lot. That always helps with communication. We learned how comfortable it is to sit under one of the Japanese heated tables. The rug we were sitting on was also heated. Very cozy. We might have to rethink our winter survival strategy. The 7 year old helped mom in the kitchen, and he also set the table. We were thoughtfully provided with both hashi (chopsticks) and a spoon and fork. Souta-chan was astounded when Santa-san proved to be skilled with chopsticks. I think Santa made big points there. We did resort to spoons for the corn. Our limited chop stick skills weren’t up to the challenge of picking up those tiny kernels. Rio-chan is a very busy 3 year old. She climbed on everything, including Papa and Souta. We were amazed to watch Souta lay patiently on the floor while Rio walked on his back. Souta-chan plays piano, baseball, and martial arts. He demonstrated the martial arts by attacking Papa in typical boy fashion. It must be in the male genome. Fathers and sons are alike everywhere. The piano supports a program that enables it to play itself. It made very nice background music for the evening. Rio-chan had a favorite tune; and, whenever it would start to play, she would bounce around in her chair, climb up on the piano bench, and pretend to play the tune. She liked for Santa to help. Souta-chan hesitantly poked Santa in the tummy and asked why it was so soft. Santa confessed he eats lots of milk and cookies left by all the boys and girls in the world. At that point, little Rio-chan pulled up her shirt and began examining her own tummy. She eats milk and cookies, too. Was she going to grow a big tummy like that? Souta-chan giggled delightedly when Mrs. Santa tickled his tummy and teased him about eating too many cookies. Both children were very well behaved and polite. Delightful. Rio-chan asked Santa, “Where do you go?” Santa told her he was going to bring presents to her friends, but only after they were asleep. The children thought this was very funny; they were the only ones who would be eating dinner with Santa.

Close to 9:00 p.m. both children were looking very sleepy. Santa-san finished off the evening with a “high touch” (high five) with Souta-chan and Rio-chan. Both children bravely felt of Santa’s beard. Souta-chan, wanting to make sure the beard was real, convinced Mama to feel Santa’s beard, too.

We drove off with Gunji-san, leaving a wailing little girl behind us. Rio-chan did not want Santa to leave. (Who knows how the parents explained the absence of Santa’s sleigh, too big for the yard?) Gunji-san had given us a bottle of sake; so, back at home, we sipped the sake and relived the evening. We had a great time. Chas loved it when he could get little Rio-chan to warm up to him and let him hold her. He is a sucker for small children.

It was a very different Christmas Eve than we had anticipated. Having just arrived in Japan the end of September, we had resigned ourselves to spending Christmas alone. In early October, when Gunji-san asked Chas to play Santa for his children, we happily agreed, thinking it would be fun. It was much more than that. Christmas Eve is a huge holiday in Japan. It was an honor to be invited into their home for the evening. We had expected to be in and out in an hour. They had clearly gone to some trouble to make us feel comfortable, and to treat us. It was touching to be able to experience an intimate Christmas Eve with this Japanese family. It made our Christmas very special, truly a warm family event.

Since arriving in Japan, we have experienced many acts of kindness from the people here. We miss our families, but we are not lonely. We know we are slightly out of place, and we appreciate the efforts on the part of our Japanese friends to make us feel welcome. I think we are going to be O.K. - Bobbie