Celebrating big holidays like Christmas in a foreign country always comes with a mixed bag of emotions. Some expats, especially in their first couple of years abroad, will rush home every major vacation. Others do their best to ignore it and treat it like any other day. And some, like me, do their best to celebrate it any way they can, even if it means a lot of compromises.
My first year in Japan the biggest concern was that we would have to work on Christmas Day, something I had never experienced. As luck would have it, a friend of mine needed some time off and swapped her day off (Christmas Day) with one of mine. I thought I was really lucky! We had a small tree and exchanged presents Christmas morning, and then the worst thing happened. Everyone went to work and I was left alone at home. I realised then that working on the day would not be so bad if it meant I could share it with my friends, who basically become your family when you live abroad.
A couple of years later a friend and I ended up making dinner for all the foreign teachers in our school. As neither of us had an oven (which are not common in Japan) we ended up substituting smoked turkey leg for the whole bird, and I discovered a whole world of non-baking treats, such as truffles and fudge, and learned to bake gingerbread cookies in my fish grill. That dinner would become the standard for most of my Christmas dinners in subsequent years.
Whenever it comes to decorations, many people keep it simple or non-existent. Just the other day I overheard a woman at work say that she wouldn’t be putting up decorations because she didn’t have any children and it would make her sad. I have the exact opposite feeling. For me, not recognising a part of my cultural heritage would seem more depressing, especially since Christmas is my favourite holiday. Over the years I’ve collected a range of small, but interesting decorations that have been easy to ship wherever I may be living in the world. Three years ago I finally bit the bullet and a bought a full-sized Christmas tree and real glass decorations for it. Despite the fact that it’s always set up on tatami in a room with sliding doors, it can make me forget (sometimes) that I’m living in Japan. That being said, I like the fact that in Japan, the focus is on New Years, and I clean my house and set up the new year decorations just like everyone else. And, if I can muster up the strength to brave the crowds, I go to the shrine as well for my new year visit.
In the past I always had friends or family ask me if I was lonely on Christmas because I was all alone, and I really wasn’t. Being a (single) expat in a foreign country means that every day is a lonely day. I wake up alone, go to work alone, come back home alone, and eat all my dinners alone. Christmas is not any more of an “alone” day than any other. However, as I get older I have to admit that some years are harder than others, and this year may be one of them, although I may be feeling that because I’m currently sick with the flu.
In any event, this is now my tenth year in Japan, and I still have yet to have a “Japanese-style” Christmas dinner featuring KFC and strawberry shortcake. There’s always next year.