The First Day of Christmas… in Japan

 

 

The rush in and out of crowded stores to grab last minute gifts and missing ingredients for tonight’s party at Auntie’s house. More congested than the stores are the kitchen counter; used dishes eagerly await their turn to be washed, open containers are scattered about- hinting at the menu- and that last dish is in the oven, baking till the moment we’re leaving. Bro is chilling in the living room, right outside the scene, creating one of his own, hands arresting the remote controller, eyes affixed to a game of Madden- at least as long as he can deal with Ma fussing at him. Music and lights are blaring from each of our bathrooms, occupied with the girls showering or styling their hair.

This is just the first course of the Christmas that I knew. The madness would traditionally lead up to a party with the family and a few friends. The table would be spread with all sorts of foods. The ones I usually look forward to include King Hawaiian rolls, an occasional pineapple upside-down cake, and Bacardi rum cake. My sister like to make the rum cake. It’s moist and creamy on the inside owing to the pudding in the batter (Don’t tell her I told you). And its surface is sugar hardened and embedded with chopped nuts. And to make sure you don’t forget its a rum cake, the rum glaze is poured over the cake until it soaks it all in! Mmm!

The night goes on with music and games. The finale of the Christmas Eve party is what we tend to call grab bag, a game that the rest of the world seems to call white elephant- the gift exchange. Almost every year, surfacing from the pile of paper wrapped boxes and tissue stuffed bags is are hot chocolate sets, Starbucks gift cards (some probably recycled), and Ferrero Rocher chocolates- my brother’s favorite, and he doesn’t even eat chocolate. But for Ferrero Rocher, the gold foil wrapped chocolate covered hazelnut confection, he makes an exception. By the time everyone clears out, the night is expired and  a late wake-up is in order.

By 10 the next morning,   we’re all mostly awake; if we aren’t there’s some overjoyed person running through the house singing, “Merry Christmas!”, as they nudge all the sleepers. In Dad’s stronger days, he was the man in the kitchen on Christmas. Jazz in is ears, a bounce on his shoulders, and flour on the counter. With his bottom lipped tucked and his tongue curled, he whistled the tune. On the menu: Buttery, pan-sized pancakes, of which the salty, crispy edges would overlap the plates rim. There were cheese scrambled eggs, and sausage. On particular mornings, he would make fry jacks- the Belizean variant of frybread (flour, baking powder, sugar, and water; combine; rest; cut; fry). And then, dripping down the sides of the mug or ladle beside the stove, was hot chocolate, Ovaltine, or tea with a heavy helping of sweetened condensed milk! Just warms me up thinking about it.

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A more recent addition to my Christmas tradition- fruit cake and sorrel- imparted by my sister’s husband from Jamaica. This fruit cake isn’t the one that seems to be infamous to Americans, dense and loaded with red and green cherries and nuts. This Caribbean treasure does have dried fruit in it, but it’s macerated in Jamaican rum, blended, and combined into the batter. This year, I’m still waiting on my piece.

 

Then we would get to the presents! Thus began the cluttering of the living room with all the unwanted, nonetheless beautiful wrapping paper that had tried so hard to conceal the gifts beneath. The rest of the day was spent relaxing, chatting, gaming, and movie watching, interjected only by dinner. That’s how we did it year after year, for the most part.

Then, my family started growing and stretching.

And then I got stationed in Japan. They don’t quite do it the same here. All throughout restaurants and malls, I’ve heard George Michael’s Last Christmas and Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You and plenty of older ones. I’ve seen some trees and lights go up here and there. But Christmas spirit here seems to have little do with the big legend wrapped in a red suit or his furry red-nosed pet or the families they visit, much less the Christ in Christmas. Christmas is largely marketed to couples and motivates many adolescents to find their beaus and bows. It’s Valentine’s Day: Round 2.

What does that mean for me?

I spent Christmas Eve at Every Nation Church Yokosuka’s International Gala, sampling foods spanning the globe. There were tables representing Japan, the Philippines, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Among other dishes, there was, as expected, soups and sushi on the Japanese table; pancit and lumpia from the Philippines; fruit and cheese salad and pies from Europe; bobotie   and bricks from Africa; and some more pies on the Americas table.

Other than the food featured, there were games, a photo booth and a candle light service.

Christmas day was spent brunch hopping until I ended up at dinner, two of which were offered on base. I’m grateful for the many hearts that try to keep ours happy, particularly during the holidays. The USO had a generous spread with ham and turkey and even a whole hog (that was probably the moistest I’ve had). They served potatoes, pancit, rolls, and wings. There was another table with posole and chili and a massive dessert table.

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There was a cake offered as Japanese Christmas cake. My slice off this roll cake was soft, cool and spongy. It was spiraled and topped with whip cream. Down the length of the roll was a spice frosting that took the shape of chow mien, studded with chestnuts.

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While I didn’t have my rum cake or fruit cake, Christmas was still pretty sweet. Yes, it would have been nice to spend the day with my family, and I smile when I think of they way it used to be and will one day be. Yet, it wasn’t so bad. Japan’s not bad, and I can’t wait till my family visits to experience it.

More highlights of my Japanese experience to come: Incriminating tales of high speed chases through Tokyo, Turkish delights…

 

 

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