What do you do when the kids think Colonel Sanders is Santa?

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Foreign parents in Japan are faced with the task of trying to reconcile their own childhood memories of Christmas with the different take that Japan has on the holiday season.

While Japan does the commercial side of the season very well, with beautiful displays and piped-in holiday tunes in many of the stores, Christmas for most families usually means eating fried chicken and strawberry shortcake on Dec. 24 and giving each child a single gift “from Santa.”

The custom of fried chicken originated back in the 1970s, when KFC launched a successful Christmas advertising campaign. Fried chicken was more familiar to the Japanese than turkey, yet was still unusual enough to satisfy the growing trend to embrace Western pop culture. As for strawberry shortcake, its delicate texture is probably more popular than stodgy fruitcake, while its red and white colors fit right in with the holidays.

As a child, I typically got seven or eight presents each year from my parents, so when my three children were smaller, I used to run around trying to organize multiple gifts. In an effort to save money, I often purchased secondhand books and DVDs at an international school’s Christmas bazaar. So what if my preschooler’s “new” book had “This book belongs to Shayla Marie Piekarski” written inside?

In most of Japan, the winter school holidays start on Dec. 26, so the kids also have school on Christmas Day. There came the day when my eldest asked why Santa brought him so many gifts, but his Japanese school friends only got one each. Thinking quickly, I pointed out that his friends got lots of otoshidama (New Year’s gift money from doting relatives). With my side of the family all in New Zealand, our children don’t do well in the otoshidama stakes, so I suggested that maybe Santa compensated with more gifts. My son’s face lit up. “I get it! Santa brings more presents to kids with gaijin moms.”

One year, my older daughter came home from her Japanese daycare center in tears on Christmas Eve. “Santa forgot us!” she cried. I tried to explain that Santa was going to visit that very evening, but she was distraught: “But he went to Ayaka’s house yesterday!”

I was baffled at first, but then I remembered that Dec. 23 was a public holiday in honor of the Emperor’s birthday. For busy working parents, I can see the appeal of celebrating on their day off, but it didn’t make it easy for those of us trying to do Christmas on the 25th.

Speaking of getting it wrong, my youngest daughter used to be convinced that Santa moonlighted as Colonel Sanders, or “Kentucky Ojiisan” as kids call him. She’d seen the statue of the Colonel decked out in a Santa suit outside our local KFC and come up with her own explanation. “Santa cooks chicken for everyone at Christmas,” she declared.

In New Zealand, my grandparents and cousins joined us to celebrate, but in Japan I often felt like a one-woman show, with my Japanese husband and children as bemused spectators. One year the effort of trying to make Christmas Day perfect for my family left me almost in tears. From preparing a feast that they weren’t suitably grateful for, to my husband declaring that the kids were spoiled by getting so many gifts, nothing went right. It was a bittersweet moment when I admitted to myself that I was trying to recreate my image of a “perfect” Christmas — something the rest of the family knew little about.

At my husband’s suggestion, the following year we went out to eat for Christmas. Though not the average New Zealander’s idea of Christmas dinner — an Italian meal in our neighborhood — it was relaxed and enjoyable all the same. Learning to be flexible and embrace “new traditions” has since been an important aspect of our family’s celebrations.

Sometimes the silliest things can end up being enduring family favorites. A few years ago, we went out to karaoke on Christmas Day. Donning ¥100-store Santa hats, we sang our way through an entire catalog of holidays songs in both Japanese and English. Now, our holiday celebrations must include a Christmas karaoke session somewhere.

I am not a regular churchgoer, but wishing to impart the “real” religious meaning behind the celebrations to my children, I searched Tokyo for a family-friendly Christmas Eve service in English. I am thrilled to be able to sing the familiar carols that take me back to my own childhood, but even more delighted that my kids continue to join me every year.

My 14-year-old sings in her junior high school’s choir and there is a concert on Christmas Eve this year. When I asked her if she could skip it and come to church as usual, she just rolled her eyes at me in that way that teen girls do. However, just this week she informed me that she’s joining the rest of us after all. “It wouldn’t feel like Christmas if we don’t go together,” she remarked. Exactly.

Tips for making the season special

Join other families in a similar situation: While it might not be the same as being at grandma’s for Christmas, inviting friends over for a potluck dinner during the holidays can spread the joy.

Visit a festival: Most international schools hold a holiday bazaar or festival that is open to the general public. These can be a wonderful opportunity to stock up on English books and exquisite handicrafts, as well as to enjoy seasonal music and fare. And-if you’ve been good all year — there’s Santa’s grotto.

Go out: Many parts of Tokyo are lit up like a fairyland at Christmas and a family trip to see the illuminations, for example at Roppongi’s Tokyo MidTown, is an inexpensive way to enjoy the festive season. If your kids are very young, try going just as dusk falls to avoid the crowds.

Remember others: This year’s earthquake disaster has heightened people’s awareness of giving to others — and Christmas is a time of giving.

A family of animal lovers, we make a collective donation to ARK to help their pet rescue efforts (www.arkbark.net).

Teens can help at Second Harvest, which welcomes the participation of children over 12 in their volunteer activities (www.2hj.org/index.php/eng_home) Other practical volunteering opportunities can also be found at Hands on Tokyo (www.handsontokyo.org/en/home)