Buy & Sell
Ah, Christmas -- my favorite time of year, especially in America...
Deck the halls with warmth and friendship...
By: Helen Betts
Date Posted: 2001-12-20
Fresh Christmas trees adorned with glittering ornaments and twinkling lights, tinsel shimmering and garlands sparkling. The smell of evergreens scenting the cold winter air. Colorful -- or maybe garish -- decorations in all the shops, on lampposts, in the streets -- everywhere. "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells" greeting shoppers in each and every store. Brightly lit Christmas tree lots filled with chilled families looking for the perfect tree from hundreds of fresh-smelling, prickly-needled pines, spruces and firs. Nativity crčches glowing in the evening. Salvation Army bell-ringers looking for donations on every street corner.
Department store windows with fabulous scenes of mechanized characters set to the strains of Christmas music. Sales galore -- the "biggest-ever" bargains of an already heavily discounted year. Merchandise gleaming in the aisles -- everything you never imagined you could possibly want is up literally for grabs in the closer-it-gets-to-Christmas-the-more-frantic-it-becomes shopping frenzy. Buyers who will settle for anything as long as it's a present, whipping out maxed-out credit cards or flashing cash in the eyes of beleaguered sales clerks. Lines at the cash registers, lines at the gift-wrap counters, lines in front of merchandise-packed shelves.
People everywhere, frustrated with the mass of humanity ahead of them but usually managing to wait with some modicum of good humor, joking with fellow liner-uppers in the spirit of the season. Frantic parents desperately searching for the current "present of the year," haunting the vast reaches of toy super-stores. A Santa Claus everywhere, in every department store, with a kid on his lap and hundreds waiting to submit their wishes for presents -- and parents close by, taking notes.
Christmas goodies on the shelves, in shop windows, in the pantry, on the trees. Candy canes, chocolates and sweets in every form imaginable: Santas, stockings, trees, ornaments. Roast beef, turkey, goose, duck. Eggnog and spirits, mulled wine and hot apple cider. Mince pie and fruit cake. Private dinners, family dinners, dinners with relatives you haven't seen in years, dinners with friends, restaurants featuring special Xmas menus. Office parties, gift exchanges, Christmas bonuses, early closings, days off and more days off. Stores and, amazingly enough, malls closed on Christmas Day -- leaving people nowhere to go but home, nothing to do but celebrate, no place to shop for last-minute gifts, not a corner to escape the festivities.
Houses and neighborhoods ablaze with lights, with Santas, with reindeer, with nativity scenes, each trying to outdo last year's display, to say nothing of besting the neighbors. Trees in so many windows, giving the phrase "lit up like a Christmas tree" new meaning. Lights twinkling, sitting, running round and round the festive trees -- red and green and blue and yellow. Candles glowing softly, stockings hung, presents patiently awaiting their eager recipients.
Churches packed with worshippers singing hymns and carols and extending a little more than the normal good cheer to their neighbors. Midnight mass, morning services. Everyone seems a little warmer, a little friendlier, a little more tolerant this time of year, willing to give a little more, to help out their fellow man.
But Christmas overseas -- well, that's a different story. Having spent most of my last 17 holiday seasons in foreign countries, I suppose I should be used to different ways -- or no way -- of celebrating this most important of times. I remember my first Christmas in Australia. We had managed to find a live tree that we decorated as we always do. But the tree collapsed in the heat, the needles dropped and the ornaments slid off one by one, leaving only the lights on the naked branches. And the idea of making a heavy traditional Christmas feast in 100-degree heat seemed somehow unappealing. Instead of football games (American-style, of course) on TV at this time of year, we were treated to the queen's televised address on the 25th and, of all things, cricket test matches on the next (Boxing) day, usually reserved in the U.S. exclusively for the mad rush of after-Christmas sales.
Or take mainland Japan. They like trendy things there, and Christmas has become a trend in the biggest sense of the word. The depaatos (department stores) are decked out for the season, something like in America and according to what they think Christmas is all about. Christmas carols, that is, the local version of them, are playing everywhere. I even heard renditions of old favorites like "We Three Kings" and "Deck the Halls" meowed by cats and woofed by dogs -- a whole CD’s worth. You can find some traditional foods at exorbitant prices in the more fashionable stores. Pity the poor person who absolutely must have roast beef (Kobe, of course) on the big day, at something like $200 a pound.
The Japanese try hard to "celebrate" Christmas, even going to the extent of festooning the upscale shopping districts with lights. Lines of cars wait in the evenings leading up to Christmas Day to cruise the long expanse of Tokyo's Omotesando Dori, with occupants reveling and marveling in the glorious display. I had heard a rumor that the city would permanently turn the display off at 10:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, of all times. Refusing to believe such a ridiculous story, we took a drive over there, waited for 45 minutes in the slowly snaking line of cars, rounded the corner at a few seconds to 10, only to watch the street go dark. You see, they don't really celebrate Christmas -- they imitate it.
Hong Kong, I suppose due to the British influence, manages to put on a pretty spectacular show during the holidays. We had heard that it became "the city of a billion lights" at Christmas, and it lived up to its reputation. Every major building on the Hong Kong skyline was covered with brightly colored lights -- fantastic displays sparkling in the night, from company logos to Santa figures to changing tableaux, lighting up the city like one giant Christmas tree.
Having just spent four Christmases in Turkey, a Muslim country, I didn’t really have much of a sense of the holidays there: I never saw a real live Christmas tree, although you could buy a reasonable facsimile, for a price. I never heard a consciously recognizable Christmas carol in all those years, and searching for greeting cards with a distinct local flavor appropriate for friends and family back home proved quite a challenge. Maybe I didn't hang out in department stores enough, but I can't recall a significant number of Christmassy decorations strung about anywhere, least of all on private residences. There was no shortage of merchandise for sale, however, since Turks exchange gifts for New Year's at just about the same time we do for Christmas. I used to find it strange that everyone wished me "Happy New Year" on Christmas Day, but after trying and trying to explain that we too celebrate New Year's on January 1st, I just gave up and accepted the wishes in the spirit in which they were intended.
Christmas in Okinawa is proving to be a different experience yet again. Attractive displays grace the local department stores, and there’s a holiday feeling in the air, even if the majority of customers are buying for New Year’s, or oseibo. In fact, every shop or restaurant I go into seems to have a Christmas tree accompanied by the strains of familiar carols. Some of the military base quarters are so lavishly decorated, they would rival anything in the States. I was overjoyed to see an abundance of colorful lights and decorations on houses in my neighborhood, and the numerous electrical transmission towers I’ve seen strung in holiday reds and greens provide a cheerful break in the nighttime scenery. Most of my Okinawan friends tell me they have Christmas trees in their homes, if only tiny, artificial ones. And there’s nothing like the fragrance of a fresh evergreen to put me into a holiday mood, so I was ecstatic to be able to buy a large, fresh spruce at one of the bases, my first “real” tree in over 10 years. Unfortunately, it died two weeks before Christmas, and we had to replace it with our scentless, lifeless artificial one left over from our years in Turkey. When it comes to trees, I guess some things never change…
It’s still not exactly what I grew up with at Christmas, mind you, but Okinawa is a very special place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like Okinawan cuisine and will be happy to feast on local delicacies during the holidays. Over the years I’ve grown used to working on Christmas Day, letting my husband do the cooking and opening gifts in the evening, and this year will probably be no exception. But I’ll be quite content to share a glass of holiday cheer with my extended family of Okinawan and American friends on the island over the holiday season.
That's what it's supposed to be about, after all: not the trappings, the trees, the lights, the music, the presents -- but rather friends and family, warmth and happiness, fellowship and peace. And I have an abundance of all that right here on Okinawa.