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The Holiday Season in Other Countries

December 24, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama

One kind Maui News blog reader commented how he was interested in hearing on my experiences during my 20 years abroad, and so this holiday season I write my first of many recollections on my travels, focusing on Christmas season activities in three locations.

1. The Philippines. Once on a business trip to Manila in early November, I was startled to find what appeared to be large Christmas-type wreath ornaments for sale along the road in front of Ninoy Aquino International Airport. When I met my business contact – an older gentleman who in his youth translated Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago from Russian to Tagalog – he explained that Christmas ornaments begin selling in early November, Christmas trees are up and decorated by mid-November, by early December people are running around planning for parties, mid-December means that no work is being done and people are visiting each other in anticipation of parties, and the few days before Christmas is a frenzied series of family and friend gathering, with enormous outlays of food of all kinds – plus visits to churches.

I left Manila unfortunately by mid-November (I did see Christmas decorations and trees at Makati business district offices), so I missed the ramp-up to Christmas, and regretted not visiting Manila in December (although I still may visit Manila again in the future).

2. Germany. Once in early December I visited Munich, and the city, once capital of the Kingdom of Bavaria, was covered in snow. A friend took me to an open market filled with stalls that sold hand-made wooden Christmas ornaments. I was amazed to find such a technologically-advanced country (Munich is the headquarters of electronics giant Siemens and BMW) still committed time and resources to making small Christmas decorations, as people did perhaps a thousand years ago, out of branches and twigs.

Carolers sang “Silent Night” in German, and it was quite a beautiful, haunting scene. Also, shoppers in falling snow drank hot spiced wine (called “Glühwein” in German) to give warmth and a positive mood during shopping. I found it a bit strong and too spicy, but treasured the taste in my mind, along with melting snow as flakes fell on my face and arms – a very Munich moment.

3. Japan. During the last 20 years, large commercial-office-hotel complexes were built in central Tokyo, including Roppongi Hills and Mid-Town (anchored by the Grand Hyatt Roppongi Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo Hotel, respectively), and they became centers of Christmas lights for Tokyo-ites to gawk and llinger in the winter cold.

Although Japan has about one percent of its population as Christian (historically, Christian missionaries arrived in Japan two centuries before Captain Cook came to Hawaii), many non-Christian Japanese celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts, and eating “Christmas” foods, like roast chicken or duck, a peculiar strawberry cake sold universally in Japan, and enjoying champagne and wine. Due to the small size of Japanese homes, very few have neither large refrigerators nor an oven large even to roast a chicken, so celebrants buy the food items at department stores, bakeries, even railroad station mall stores – including tens of thousands of tiny bottles of champagne.

Unlike the U.S., Europe or many other countries, Japanese Christmas gatherings are less family-oriented, and more for younger people to get together at restaurants or party venues. Japanese and expatriate Christians attend Christmas Eve services, and once they leave the church, Tokyo looks like a all-Christmas city -- with Christmas trees, decorations, and bells. Paradoxically, Christmas Day is not a Japanese national holiday and Japanese stores and government offices are open, unlike in North America, Europe, Australia, Philippines, and many other countries. Of course, a live Christmas tree is exorbitant -- few Tokyo city dwellers have the space to put a tree, in any case -- so that explains so many people in Tokyo on the move to see Christmas things.


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