A brief timeline of my Christmas season so far:
Tuesday, Nov. 1, the stroke of midnight — Walk downstairs in the Santa Claus pajama set I got for last Hanukkah to signify the official end of Halloween and the beginning of Christmas.
Tuesday, Nov. 8, sometime about 8:30 p.m. — Screech “Christmas is canceled” as the numbers come in. Things look bleak but not hopeless, so I can still say stupid stuff like this.
Wednesday, Nov. 9, about 4:00 p.m. — Between crying spells, compose email to friends titled “CHRISTMAS IS NOT CANCELLED.” The internet said self-care, so I envision a future of fuzzy socks, peppermint, Josh Groban and DIY holiday crafts.
It might not make much sense for Christmas to be meaningful self-care for me. I’m not Christian — my dad almost became a rabbi and became a Buddhist instead, and my mom is Shinto-Buddhist.
I also didn’t grow up with any particular secular Christmas tradition. When I was really little, my parents would put up stockings from “Santa” stuffed with Japanese candies for me and my little sister, but as we got older, we began to stick to Hanukkah. As great as stacks of oily latkes and the prospect of eight presents are, I always nursed an inexplicable soft spot for Christmas.
My holiday spirit might have zero foundation in my personal upbringing, but it doesn’t lack precedence. In fact, I am downright reconnecting with my culture.
In Japan, Christmas is an exuberant, godless date night celebration with two main tenets: chicken and cake. It’s not a national holiday — only about 1 percent of the population is Christian, it never really caught on — but the nation comes together anyway to line up at KFC and order a bucket of American-style fried chicken.
You can also order your chicken in advance (my grandparents ordered ours in October). The other centerpiece of Japanese Christmas is the strawberry shortcake — there’s a slice and full cake version on your emoji keyboard.
The Christmas cake is just one example of the Japanese cultural obsession with the West, as well as Japan’s ability to tweak the Western traditions to fit its own needs.
The cake is supposed to look like a British- or American-style confection, but it is the soft, light sponge cake Asians tend to prefer as opposed to the dense, butter-heavy cake of Western sweets. This is a common motif. In my mom’s hometown, there’s a hamburger chain restaurant called Bikkuri Donkey (“Surprised Donkey”) that looks like a Disney Cracker Barrel where the hamburgers are served bunless with rice and daikon radish or curry sauce.
Japanese Christmas feels like a weird and powerful reclamation — gutting a Western holiday of everything missionaries unsuccessfully tried to push on Japan for centuries to just pick out all the fun stuff and cobble together a day devoted to pure festivity.
There’s a Jewish stake in Christmas too. If there aren’t any good Hanukkah songs, it’s probably because Jewish songwriters were too busy writing Christmas classics. Don’t believe me, just look at some of the most famous carols.
“White Christmas” was written by Irving Berlin, who was born in Russia and whose original name was Israel Baline. Johnny Marks, also Jewish, wrote the score for the TV special “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
It’s a cliche, but Christmas is for everyone — if they want to celebrate it — not just because the spirit of Christmas is about inclusiveness but because the tentacles of Western consumerism have reached so far that you probably celebrate it a little, anyway, if only with a Starbucks peppermint mocha.
Nobody is obliged to participate, but everyone gets to. For me, it’s a reason to wear sparkly things and dance and pile up on the couch for movie nights with my friends. It’s something to look forward to, and I need that right now. So catch me in December wearing DAISO reindeer ears, putting Santa hats on the paper bats I left up from Halloween.
Contact Miyako Singer at [email protected].