My nine-year-old is one of the staunchest believers in Kriss Kringle in the entire world. She has successfully debated the existence of Santa Claus with her father since the tender age of three. She can deflect and answer any question directed to her regarding the magical old gentleman and the very existence of "non believers" leaves her with an incredulous look on her face as she sadly laments "how can they not? That's so sad!"Her father certainly has not had any hand in helping to nurture the magic of Christmas in our household. Being a Japanese business man he is at work on the 25th of December every year and he doesn't get involved in our Christmas decorations and carrying ons, unless it is to poke fun at them. (He particularly enjoys taunting the girls on Christmas Eves that he'll punch out Santa just like he would any other dorobou (thief) that comes calling at our house to which they wail back in unison, "but he isn't stealing things! He's bringing us TOOOOOYYYYSSSS!")
Growing up, my father wrote us long delightful letters from Santa. He faithfully ate all the cookies (and the fresh vegetables that were left for the reindeer) and drank up all the milk. In marrying into another culture, one in which my Buddhist husband has never shown an ounce of enthusiasm for Old Saint Nick impersonations, I have ironically taken over my father's role. I'm sure there must be single moms over there in the U.S. who have also found themselves impersonating an overweight jolly old elf--the hidden roles of motherhood revealed: chauffeur, dietician, personal hygiene consultant, human body pillow (if you co-sleep with your kids), and every December, the North Pole's most famous resident: fat Nick.
I have sat up late every Christmas eve and stuffed myself full of the reindeer's carrot sticks and Santa's sugar cookies, making sure to leave one with a big bite mark in it on the plate. . . quaffed the milk and written letters to the girls. Not to mention done all the gift wrapping, the stocking stuffing and the month's worth of Christmas carol singing, nativity scene viewing, advent wreath lightings and readings . . . can you tell that I am determined to share my cultural/familial traditions with my children?
Our American Christmas in Japan is an odd sort of quilt patched together of my American family's customs and Christian traditions with Japanese substitutes and inspired rifts on a Christmas theme. Often the traditional Christmas dinner fair has to be a bit forged. . . chicken instead of a turkey, potato salad instead of mashed potatoes and since fudge is too sweet for my Japanese raised children's taste the famous light and fluffy (sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries) Japanese Christmas cake! However, I did willfully expend too much money on purchasing imported Candy canes and subjecting my children to them for a good two years before they finally developed a taste for them--Some things I have just been unable to compromise on.
The tree on which we hang our assortment of ornaments (true ornaments gratefully received from family back home mixed with the little free key chain\bag accessories that Japanese drink companies like to give away when you buy a bottle of their tea/soda.) is not a real tree like the kind I grew up with. But it has grown anyway. Frustrated by the knee high imitation trees commonly available here (our first year in Japan) I demanded a four foot tree from the local home goods center (third year in Japan) and finally I went and picked up a six foot artificial tree from Costco when they opened a store in Osaka (our sixth year in Japan).
Come December my house fills with the holiday aromas of fresh pine (essential oil) cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg (a delightful Yankee candle), cranberry and holly (again, Yankee candles) and after five years of living in Japan without an oven the microwave finally died and I was able to get a small convection oven--finally the true scent of freshly baked cookies. The DVD player whirls away and fills our family room with Frosty the Snow Man, the Grinch who Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
While my zeal for preserving/re-creating the holiday spirit for my children comes from the best intentions, I admit it, I have gone overboard. As my nine-year-old struts past me, wondering aloud if she ought to ask Santa for the new Tamagochi DS software or for the Nintendo T.V. taiko drum game I have to admit--I am the person who made Santa what he is.
My own parents kept that jolly old elf right where he belonged. He was one of the most magical parts of Christmas in my childhood but he wasn't IT. He definitely took a back seat to that kid that Mary had. Santa kept a list, he checked it twice, and he apparently checked with my parents before putting anything in his bag for me. My parents kind of "okayed" his thoughtfulness if you know what I mean. "Okay Santa. She's been fairly well behaved. We guess a little something would be okay if you're sure you want to give her something." So Santa always left a small something for me under the tree. A small something. And only ONE thing. I, however, apparently totally whacked out on expatriate mothering hormones allowed the old gent to literally shower Reno with gifts each December the 25th. In fact, in my crazed frenzy I reversed the whole affair and now it was Mom and Dad who left only one small gift under the tree--everything else came from Santa or grandparents, aunts and uncles. Even, gulp, the stockings came from Santa: Everything comes from Santa. (I learned later that in a lot of families, it is traditionally only the stockings that Santa fills up.)
So now, although we weren't burdened with getting gifts for anyone else (I only send Christmas gifts to about five people--mostly my family in the States) December became an incredibly expensive month for us. My Santa liked to give BIG gifts, and my Santa liked to give MANY gifts. And if only I had realized what kind of a monster I was creating I still could have scaled back when Reno was small. . . but then she was an only child until the age of four and I foolishly felt as though we could afford to have a big Christmas each year. . . Then we had child number two. Even that first Christmas when Saki was still not even sitting up on her own and thus, not in the way of needing very many toys, I started to feel the financial pinch. When I went over budget buying them "the matching Christmas outfits" I realized we were in trouble.
Now. How to extricate ourselves from this Holiday tinsel trap? Of course, no one wants to tell their five-year-old that Santa doesn't exist. . . well, okay, maybe I did sorta kinda wanna tell her. . . but I didn't. Instead I thought back to my childhood and remembered that it was in first grade when my friends who had stopped believing started to work on me. "It's your Mom and Dad you know. There is no Santa." The chilling testimonies, "So I snuck downstairs and it was just my Dad and Mom putting stuff in our stockings!" That was the way out! Let her friends at school disillusion her! So I sent Reno off to first grade smugly thinking that by the end of that year we'd be waving bye bye Santa.
Guess what? In Japan, most kids don't believe in Santa to begin with. Guess what else? Since Santa is sort of like a "gaijin" (foreigner) himself, apparently, when Saki told them that he did too exit and that he came to her house every year and left her lots of presents and a stocking--they believed her! In fact, she created a kind of urban legend in our Japanese neighborhood. If you are a gaijin kid, or if you are a hafu (part Japanese/part foreigner) then you get stuff from the gaijin Santa on Christmas. Even now, at the age of nine, her friends kind of step back and shake their head in awe, "ii na? yappari hafu wa lucky desu yo ne!" (cool, yup, hafu's are lucky.)
This last Christmas it just spiraled completely out of control. Reno kept heaping request upon request into Santa's sleigh and it was overloaded, spinning downwards, headed into a nose first collision with the reality of our family finances. The thing that topped it was, "I want a piano. A REAL one."
I tried a couple of different methods to undermine the request: Santa's sleigh couldn't carry such a large object. His magic shrinks things. Santa has so many children world-wide that he has to give gifts to that he has started to limit what he can give to each child. Okay. Then Reno and Saki would accept the piano as a gift for both of them.
One friend suggested that I simply disappoint the girls and on Christmas morning tell them that they must have been on the naughty list.
I entertained the idea.
Then my husband gave in and agreed to get them the piano. But again, we had been talking the entire fall about Santa giving them a piano for Christmas. Now my husband had purchased a piano and arranged for it to be delivered on the 24th. How was I supposed to preserve the childhood magic of their beloved Santa Claus and yet explain the appearance of delivery men on the 24th, from the local music store, with their piano, on the day before Christmas.
Thus was born my literary masterpiece: the Letter from Santa December 2006:
Dear Reno and Saki,
This letter comes special delivery (You should find it in your mail box on Saturday the 23rd, as it should arrive in your mail box via white snowy owl overnight—did you know that I also use White Snowy Owls for mail delivery? Not just Harry Potter!). It was entrusted to “Snow Flake” one of my best owls so I trust it will reach you safely.
I am writing to let you know that your Christmas gift will be arriving early this year. I see on the calendar, cross checking it with the International school calendars, that Reno will be going to school on December the 25th this year! So, I thought it would be nice if you got your gift early so that you could enjoy it over the weekend!
Your gift should be delivered by a local delivery company in Akita. The reindeer have recently asked that heavier items be delivered early by out source companies as they say that carrying such a heavy load on Christmas Eve is leaving them so tired that they are unable to enjoy their spring vacation! Your gift this year is particularly heavy so I have gone ahead and asked a local company there in Akita to deliver it to your home. Plus it would have been impossible to fit through the heating vent without probably causing such a ruckus that your neighbors would have woken up and phoned the police. Then when the police came I would have had to share my cookies with them and as I already have to share with all the Elves back at my workshop. . . well, your cookies in the past have been so delicious I just want to be sure I get a few to myself! You are planning on leaving out a plate of cookies again this year, aren’t you? Although your big gift will come early on Saturday the 23rd, I will still be leaving a little something under the tree for you to enjoy together on Christmas morning.
Have a Merry Christmas and don’t forget that I update the Naughty and Nice list all year round, so keep being good little girls!
And thus Christmas and Santa were saved in 2006. Reno watched me like a hawk the entire time the piano delivery men were here and when they left I heard her triumphantly telling her little sister, "Mommy didn't give them any money, see! Santa is real! I knew it! He is, he is, he is, he is, he IS!" Saki exploded into little shrieks of delight as they whirled through the house joyfully dancing and jumping in a festive mood that carried us well through the New Year.
But it can't go on, can it? I mean, a teenager who still believed in Santa Claus would be asking for things like cars and trips to Europe, front row concert tickets in Tokyo. . . so the bloody task is left to me: I get to metaphorically speaking, stab Santa, kill Kringle, off the jolly old elf. Leaving the question simmering in my mind, "but how?" How do you dismantle your children's innocence? How do you break down their magical barricade and pour reality into their pure imaginations?
The question left me thinking again on why and how Santa had undergone the metamorphosis from fanciful symbol of Christmas spirit into a materialistic gift getting symbol of the holiday in our family. The answer has three main components:
1. MATERIAL: I overdid all the gifts/stockings in my enthusiasm for providing a bountiful holiday for my children.
2. FAMILIAL: Because we live far from our American family and friends we don't do the normal "Christmas shopping" thing. I remember finding the most beautiful scarf for Aunt Audrey with my mother one summer while on vacation in Monterey, California. And in Reno, Nevada finding the adorable plush Tigger rattles for my cousins' babies who were also born in the Chinese year of the Tiger like my eldest daughter. Back home, Christmas shopping was something that we did year round, and something that I was involved in from a very young age. Thinking about our friends and families, looking for a gift for each person to show them how much they meant to us, how special they were and how much they enriched our lives by being part of them. December didn't only herald the arrival of huge cardboard boxes packed with gifts from the relatives, it also meant trips to the P.O. with my parents to ship off our huge package stuffed boxes to Aunts, Uncles and cousins living in the Mid West. My mother and father annually stayed in the kitchen for one weekend every December making batches of fudge and cookies to wrap up in bows and distribute among the neighbors, our teachers (Sunday school, piano, school) the mail delivery guy, the garbage collections guys, the newspaper boy, the babysitter, our hairstylist.
We don't do any of that here. My Christmas shopping for relatives and friends back home is done on line. Or I buy things all on one day, at the shops here on New Year's day when Japan has it's best sales of the year. And my kids don't really know their U.S. relatives all that well. They have seen their American Grandparents less than five times each. In fact, Saki has only seen them once and she was only a year old at the time! My kids have missed out on perhaps the most important part of Christmas: giving.
3. SPIRITUAL: We don't go to Church. I try to read the Christmas story to them every year. We have a creche that we set out each year. We have gone to Church here in Japan a handful of times but it has been difficult. Now we live in an area where the closest Church is a forty dollar taxi ride away from our home. My husband is working even on Sundays so he is unable to drive us to the Church.
So. I have after much thought, decided that rather than an out right hit on the old guy, Santa will be better handled through a transformation process. I want to get rid of the guy in the sleigh lugging them booty and instead resurrect the spirit of Christmas giving.
I started in 2006. Even in the midst of my elaborate shenanigans to have Santa deliver them a piano, I began by making the weekly advent wreath readings a bigger feature in our holiday celebrations. I had the girls make the advent wreath with me and we made our own candle holders from paper clay and then they painted them themselves. Each week we had our own Advent service here at home. I would read them a bit from the Bible and then some readings for children during the advent season (that I found on line). Then we would take out the creche and set it up one piece at a time. As we took out each figurine we would talk about it. Each week I tried to approach the theme of giving from a different angle. The shepherds giving the Christ child gifts, God giving us the gift of his only son, made man. We looked for gifts that weren't obvious, like how useful the manger was--meant to feed horses and cows, transformed into a snug little bed for the baby Jesus!
We talked about how today we celebrate that spirit of giving at Christmas by giving gifts to one another, and by helping those in need. (Charities aren't big head liners here in Japan, but recently these days UNICEF donation boxes can be found in more and more department stores so I try to have the girls contribute whenever we see one.) Of course, I held up Santa as a heroic figure: of giving.
We ended our services by singing Christmas carols--very out of tune, off key and with great exuberance.
And just so no one thinks that I am anything other than the stumbling, rambling, unorganized and at best always half way prepared mommy I am--I'll admit it. Both girls got the biggest thrill out of singing "Happy Birthday" to baby Jesus and then blowing out the advent candles. Well, I don't remember that from any Advent services growing up, but if it keeps them happy and interested.
Of course, Reno obviously, is still pinning her hopes on a Santa that will deliver the goods. But I am hoping that if I continue to try to emphasis the areas in our lives where we are given the opportunity to give and if I just stop throwing kindling on the "Santa's a great guy, just ask Santa for it!" bon fire that the flames will naturally die down. I don't want to kill off Santa I just want Christmas to mean more than getting toys for my children. I also can't afford to keep subsidizing the old guy. These days when Reno asks questions about Santa I just throw them back at her, "what do you think?" She patches together pretty reasonable arguments to keep him going. . . but I'm encouraged by the fact that her questions keep coming and they are getting more artful. I'm encouraged that she is asking questions. While her friends have accepted the "only gaijin kids get lots of gifts from Santa" theories, I'm happy to see that she is dissatissfied with it. "If Santa really exists, then why wouldn't he bring more toys for Asuka-chyan? She is a really good girl! And Kaide -chyan said that she didn't get anything! Why would he do that?"
Of course, I don't want Reno to discover "the truth" and brutally disappate the pain of being disallusioned by disallusioning her little sister. (I can see this picture so clearly in my mind. Maybe because it was my brother who forced me to accept the fact that the Easter bunny was really only my father? I kept refusing to say it outloud, "there is no Easter Bunny" and my brother kept me there tears streaming down my face until I finally said it. ) But I think that if Santa isn't out right murdered and done away with Reno will be at peace with letting him arrive by reindeer drawn flying sleigh for her little sister for a few more years. Even is she does begin to realize that he lives more in our hearts and in childhood imagination than in the North Pole. And hopefully, that will free me from having to off the jolly old elf myself!