Since childhood, I’ve loved family holidays. Especially Christmas. When the whole family is together, well dressed, in high spirits. Twelve dishes are served on the table, a traditional kutia smells sweet, uzvar (dried fruit punch – translators note) is steaming with pears and apples in a jar, candles are lit. Such an atmosphere is created that everyone present even begins to speak a little quieter, in order not to disrupt harmony, nor to spoil the sanctity of the holiday. These memories are especially heart-breaking when you are far away from home. When you’re incredibly those dearest ones, at one big table.
Japanese people also celebrate Christmas. They do it in a big magnificent way. Right after the end of no less widespread Halloween cities turn into a Christmas fairy tale, and it doesn’t matter that it’s just the beginning of November. Christmas and New Year symbols are everywhere. Incredibly beautifully dressed fir trees appear one by one. Coffee shops and stores are decorated with artificial snow, Christmas lights, flowers, and wreaths. Vendors dress up as Santa Clauses. Cities that throughout the year don’t lack illumination, start to shine and glimmer so inspirationally, that accidentally I find myself thinking: “Imagine what electricity bills will they have!” I Remember that even after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, when Fukushima nuclear power plant was damaged, and there wasn’t enough electricity, everything was shining and sparkling during Christmas.
With the beginning of December, shops’ windows are already full of Christmas gifts. The Japanese begin to prepare for corporate events and introduce elements of festive symbols into casual clothing. However, if you ask any passer-by, what’s this Christmas is, the vast majority will smile shyly and answer: “This is a merry holiday on December 24-25, a happy day, which I will spend with my beloved one.”
The Japanese do not really think about where this holiday came from, what is its true meaning, what are the ancient traditions, how important is Christmas. In fact, less than one percent of the Japanese is Christians.
Foreigners often say “Christmas, is like other borrowed holidays for Japanese people. It is simply commerce, the opportunity to squeeze more money from people.” I won’t deny it, maybe that’s true. But how happy and smiling they are, holding hands, walking around the city and staring at festive illumination! They buy each other gifts, decorate homes. Although for youth Christmas is more like Valentine’s day, when you need to go on dates, I think it’s worth being happy about a holiday when you devote your time to the dearest ones? Isn’t there some kind of Christmas miracle?
Once I was asking about local Christmas traditions my friends who had lived in Japan for a long time. I thought they decided to trick me. I couldn’t believe that one of the most important local traditions is eating fried chicken in one of the famous American fast food chain’s restaurants. At least – you should buy those fried chicken with a crispy crust in the supermarket. Or you may cook them at home. It’s hard to find more “Christmas” tradition for the Japanese. Some stores even set up a scoreboard that shows the count of sold portions. Imagine how surprised I was when on Christmas Eve I saw a long line to that fast-food with the “ritual” chicken. Couples in love politely waited outside for several hours to get a table in order to have a romantic and “Christmas” meal.
Or another tradition. It’s mandatory if you’re celebrating in Japan. A special “Christmas” cake. And it is not quite clear to us, accustomed to kutia and varenyky, how that cake can be typical Christmas treat; however, it should be in every house. A few layers of biscuit covered with thick white cream, between them there must be a layer of fresh strawberries. The decoration also has strawberries, and often it has a chocolate plate with “Merry Christmas” on it. The Japanese themselves don’t know where this tradition came from, but I found something? just out of curiosity. It turns out that back in 1922, one large cake manufacturer deliberately created this tradition to increase sales. In their opinion, the white cream symbolized the snow, and the red strawberry was for Santa. The idea appeared to be lucrative. Since then, the Japanese haven’t imagined Christmas without the “Kurisumasu keiki”.
But for Ukrainians who are temporarily or permanently live in Japan, local “Christmas” is not enough. You want coziness, that smell of festive dishes… You recall times when you, small kid, take a little bit of kutia from the big bowl with your fingers and quickly snap into your mouth because you cannot wait anymore when allowed…
People from diasporas often gather for holidays in their community. Someone does it big, and someone is celebrating it in the circle of close friends-compatriots. We usually celebrated in a mixed company: Ukrainians, Russians, Georgians. And we were celebrating twice. For there were Catholics and Orthodox among us. Before Christmas, perhaps, we applied more effort than before the celebration of birthdays. Purchased products in advance. Because Japan is not like Ukraine, to find beets for borsch is not a bad quest. And what a supernatural task is to find ordinary wheat! In fact, we didn’t succeed all the time, sometimes we cooked kutia with rice.
After Catholic Christmas, the New Year comes quickly, and then preparations for Orthodox Christmas are on-going. Most of all I liked to introduce our traditional holidays to Japanese, who didn’t understand what Christmas Eve can be on the sixth of January, if all decent people had already celebrated it on the evening of December 25th. And how childish were their eyes, when instead of the already familiar Japanese apartment they appeared into another world? A mistress, with blushing cheeks, finishes all the cooking. Guests look nicely, in holiday clothing, in embroidered shirts. “Shchedryk” is unobtrusively sung in all possible variations. In the corner Christmas tree is still standing, as if it’s sparkles to the beat of the song. Candles are lit in the apartment. The table is covered with an embroidered tablecloth, and instead of a fried chicken there’s an incredible amount of goodies, almost each of them is unfamiliar to ordinary Japanese.
With the first star, the mistress invites guests to the table. And the eyes of the Japanese start wandering around. Traditionally, no matter in what corner of the world you are, there are twelve dishes on the table. And uzvar As in memories from childhood, the one that was steaming with apples and pears in a clay pot. And it does not matter that it is impossible to find dried fruits in Japan. Careful housekeeper pre-dried them in advance! In order to every visitor get at least a sip.
Japanese friends are completely lost at the table. And it doesn’t surprise. Here you have borshch, several kinds of varenyks with bacon, baked meat, potatoes with mushrooms, croutons with garlic and salo (salted pig’s fat – translator’s note), that is smuggled for special occasions. What holiday can be without cabbage rolls, stewed with tomato, jellied and roasted fish, several salads… And of course, the queen of the Christmas table, the one for which half of the city was explored – Kutia … An authentic one, with poppy seeds and honey stalks, made of wheat.
The dinner is started, everybody one by one tells Japanese friends the traditions of their homes because in each house there is always something own, personal. They recall childhood, relatives, how they used to carol in the childhood. And at the end of the evening we, of course, sang songs. Imagine Ukrainians, Russians, Georgians, and Japanese are sitting at a table and singing Ukrainian folk songs. Someone do it in full, someone says at least word, but all is done together. Somewhere in distant Japan. In a small apartment in a big city. The city, which may not be happy about the foreigners, but it is ready to accept them if they play according to the local rules. Sing and remember relatives. Whom you lack so much, especially on holidays.
By Halyna Iv