A Nikkei Christmas
By Terry Watada
For those who have watched the film A Christmas Story, I believe the holiday season for anyone past the age of forty is more nostalgic than celebration. So what are the traditions Nikkei observe during this most spiritual and secular time? I can only say from my perspective that Christmas was and is a confluence of cultural imperatives. In other words, a period of delight and confusion.
My parents immigrated to Vancouver in the early 20th Century, my paternal grandfather and uncle came starting from the late 19th C. And went back home, leaving my father to fend for himself. So both of them did not understand or partake in the Christmas holiday traditions wholeheartedly. Oshogatsu was much more important and observed religiously.
I do find it strange then that family photographs show decorated trees in various living rooms (of friends) during the 1930s and even in the self-supporting camp where my mom was sent under special dispensation. My brother claimed the trees were only in the houses of the rich Japanese they knew because of the expense. Yet there was one in our house in black and white. He also stated he never received any presents though he did say our father’s boss gave him a nickel every year. “Big deal. What a tightwad,” he often proclaimed.
Oddly then he recalled going to Woodward’s Department Store with mom to buy him a present. Part of the day was spent in line waiting for Santa Claus to listen to his Christmas wish. On one occasion, he wanted a Buck Rogers Ray Gun. He and mom stood in line for over an hour until they reached the front of the line only to be told Santa was going on lunch break. He was denied his chance because mom wasn’t going to wait any longer and so dragged him home. He then resorted to prayer (though the family was Buddhist). Unfortunately, he did not receive the gun and so stopped believing in Santa Claus.
He did receive presents, but every one of them was off-limits – relegated to a bedroom shelf out of easy reach. Didn’t want them worn out after all. However, every time mom went out he sneaked into the room, pulled up a chair and took the toys down to play with them. Mom never knew.
When I was a child in east end Toronto, I was given five dollars every Christmas to go with mom to the downtown Eaton’s or Simpson’s store to pick out a present. Such a red-letter day! I never stood in line for Santa. I think my mother learned her lesson, and if truth be told, I was much more interested in the soft ice cream cone or hotdog my mother bought me later in the day – another part of the tradition. I didn’t care for the old man in the outlandish red suit anyway. Yet every Christmas Day, I found an envelope on a tree branch with my name on it. It said from Santa Claus but really it was from dad.
We sent Christmas cards and we bought a tree every year from the lot of the nearby Dairy Queen, beer store or Christian church. My dad and I dutifully walked in usually near-zero weather to buy and carry home a good six-foot tree. We decorated it with lights, tinsel and glass baubles. The bubble-lights were the best; they, well, bubbled from an internal heating source. My mom claimed they were from before the war, but I doubt it. My father loved lying on the sofa beside the tree, gazing at the lights and decorations for hours at a time. I often found him asleep.
Leading up to the grand day, friends dropped by to drop off and exchange presents, an array of glittery and brightly coloured boxes. I was mesmerized by them, not wanting to open them for fear of ending the holiday. I lived, however, in great anticipation. On the day, I woke my parents up at five o’clock who promptly put me back in bed until the decent hour of seven. Waiting was always the hardest part.
Then the three of us sat beneath the tree while we opened presents. Actually my mother recorded the contents of each in order to write the appropriate thank you cards and to later re-gift them. My brother did not awaken until late morning. It didn’t matter to him since he had opened his presents alone the night before. He also didn’t give presents to family so there didn’t seem to be any need for him to appear on Christmas morning.
Christmas lunch (dinner was leftovers) consisted of the traditional turkey with all the trimmings. My mother could make a great turkey. Her stuffing and gravy were unparalleled, her sushi and lemon meringue pie even better. Afterwards, my dad slept on the Christmas tree couch, I played with my new toys and my mother put away the food thinking about Oshogatsu no doubt. I suspect my brother went out with friends.
Boxing Day was mochi-tsuki day in the basement. For years, my father and brother took turns pounding the white rice in the handmade kama while mom kneaded and shaped the mochi into dumplings. Then in my teens, I was conscripted to pound. I hated it since it was hard work and my brother slept in before leaving to socialize. My only reward was a hotdog and Lipton’s noodle soup lunch before I escaped to the Boxing Day sales with my friends.
My family observed some customs but neglected others: no nativity scene outside, no lights whatsoever except on the tree, no wreaths, no Christmas services at the local church, no fruit cake, and no carols; in fact, we never answered the door during the holidays in case those pesky carollers came a-begging. Yet it was a glorious time, a time of nostalgia these days especially when I nap peacefully on the Christmas couch dreaming of my father gazing at the lights and feeling at peace.