For many Westerners, Christmas is intimately associated with excess — Santa doesn’t have the physique of a man who is watching his calorie intake. It is the season to be jolly, not the season to worry about your weight, credit card debt or wasted packaging.
The same was true when I was growing up in Scotland. Santa brought an amazing array of chocolates, books, toys and games. One Christmas morning I sat stuffing my face with sweets and piling my presents into a tower. Then a thought occurred to me.
“Daddy,” I said, “this doesn’t seem very fair. Santa’s brought me a lot of things, but I haven’t gotten any presents from you.” I paused. “I’d really like a new bike, actually.”
My sense of entitlement to Christmas excess was absolute, and I’m sure more than a few of my peers can relate.
For someone who grew up in such a culture, Christmas in Japan can come as quite a shock. First, there is the realization that Dec. 25 is a normal working day. Then there is the beautification: The sense of familial togetherness isn’t a major factor for Christmas here, but there are a lot of very pretty trees, decorations and cakes. The biggest difference, however, is the fried chicken. After many Decembers spent pining after carefully cooked roast turkey with mounds of stuffing, gravy and trifle on the side, I finally cracked under my disappointment a couple of years ago. I went for the closest thing I could find to a festive dinner, turning up bright and early on the 25th at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Japan’s tried and true Christmas tradition. But I was turned away from the fast food restaurant because all of the fried chicken had been preordered weeks earlier.
As 2020 comes to a close, perhaps it’s time to leave our notions of holiday excess behind us. There is a heightened sense of financial insecurity brought about by trade disruptions, rising unemployment and lockdowns. And even if your extended family were here, you’d be warned not to hug them. So why don’t we put a little Zen into the Christmas season and come out of the other side of this year with fewer possessions, rather than a great many more?
If truth be told, I have been somewhat strong-armed into pursuing a Zen Christmas by my Japanese wife. Recently, she has gotten really into Mercari, an online community marketplace that facilitates the buying and selling of secondhand goods between users. It is the selling that has really taken her fancy.
My wife is not a woman who does things by halves. The quiet of our home is now often disturbed by the sound of a smartphone camera snapping as she photographs more and more items to put up for sale online. She has sold old skirts; knickknacks from our travels; a maternity bra that no longer fits (bought by a man, she noticed too late); antique mugs and more. She is like a black hole, ripping through the apartment and sucking into oblivion anything that isn’t nailed down.
I have been encouraged and cajoled into getting rid of a Braille writing tool (“You said computers are making Braille almost obsolete, didn’t you?” my wife claims); sports memorabilia that remind me of my favorite football team from back home (“They’re doing nothing but losing these days, aren’t they?”); and CDs (“Why are we paying for Spotify?”).
Pretty soon I’ll be sitting on a bare wooden floor in my dressing gown, looking rather like a Buddhist monk. But, in her own way, maybe my wife is teaching me that it’s all about the giving, not the getting. And when you no longer see even a hint of excess around you, you forget to pine after gluttony and start to take pleasure from more modest luxuries, new traditions and, of course, the people around you.
Our fried chicken has been booked well in advance of Christmas Day this year and I, for one, can’t wait.
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