My mom, who was born in the U.S. to Japanese immigrant parents and became a Christian after starting college in Pennsylvania, used to take me and my younger sister to the candlelight Christmas Eve service in English at an interdenominational church in Tokyo when we lived there as American civilian citizens residing in Japan.
I remember catching a taxi ride home in the cold wind after the service and going to bed early because Santa would not come unless the children were asleep. Then, we woke up early next morning to see what Santa had placed under our tree, a small evergreen tree with roots that had been purchased at a nursery one year for Christmas and planted in the garden and dug up every year to be brought back indoors. We decorated this tree with various ornaments purchased at the U.S. commissary and at a local gift shop that specialized in Japanese folk craft items, and put a finishing touch to it with a snow white fiberglass wool that could be spread thin and silver tinsel icicle strands that hanged from the branches. I loved the way the tinsel icicles felt.
One year, I asked Santa for a crown and received a tiara with glass crystals to share with my younger sister. I now wonder why we didn't get a tiara each, since sharing meant only one of us got to wear the tiara at a time. I don't remember fighting over it but it's too bad we couldn't both be princesses at the same time. How fair was that? Maybe we were supposed to have kept it for a special day but it somehow disappeared and I can't remember how. We must have played with it, outgrown it, and given it away, but to whom?
Santa never failed to bring a present every year but I can't recall what else I had received, which makes me wonder at times. Shouldn't Santa have brought me something memorable? Well, I do remember the tiara, and maybe that is enough. Also, Santa came every year even after I had stopped believing and writing to him, but I knew that those gifts were extra presents from my mom. (After all, Santa brings presents only to children who believe in him.)
We opened the presents first thing in the morning but after my older sister got married we waited until she and her husband could join us. For dinner, we usually had hot beef consommé soup with croutons, honey-baked ham or lamb chops with mint sauce, green peas or other cooked vegetables, popovers or spoonbread, a green salad with a dressing, a lemon soufflé, a mincemeat pie with vanilla icecream, After Eight mint chocolates, marrons glacés, chocolate macadamia nuts, chocolate kirsch cherries, and almond rocas. We also had plenty of walnuts around with the shells intact for us to crack with a hammer or a nut cracker and snack on whenever we felt like it.
What other memories do I have from Christmas past? I got my first camera, a present from my dad's employer and a family friend, on Christmas Day when I was eight years old or so. I have since then become a pretty good photographer.
I remember making painted clay figurines for the nativity scene in the Art class as a personal project when I was twelve or so. I displayed them every year during Christmas time at home afterwards.
In my teens, I remember participating in a Christmas music program as a member of the school choir led by Don Burger, our music teacher. The one song I remember practicing from that time is the Little Drummer Boy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Drummer_Boy
In Spain, where I lived for four winter months during the school year following high school graduation, I remember learning the Feliz Navidad song which I still like. I continue to study Spanish, a little at a time, reading short stories.
In France, where I lived for over a decade, I remember having Champagne with fresh oysters, smoked salmon and foie gras on toast, and mousse au chocolat. I got a glass dip pen one year as a present, although I was doing less writing at the time.
In America, I remember visiting a friend in South Texas with my mom and the three of us singing one Christmas carol song after another with our coats on to keep warm inside her house after the cold front came in unexpectedly. There was plenty to eat and drink and we raised deep cut crystal wine glasses to Christmas and still had a good time. I also remember going to a Christmas tree exhibit at an art museum where children from different schools worked on a creative Christmas tree project with different themes. No matter what, I believe in education and continue to put my faith in the future generations.
Also, in America, I attended a Christmas day mass at a Catholic church for a few years and remember being blessed by a bishop as I came out of the main door while the church bell rang. That was when I was exploring Catholicism, shortly before I discovered Judaism. Since then, I've distanced myself gradually from religious Christmas celebrations, although I'm still partial to Christmas trees and the holiday spirit in grocery stores. I still enjoy the different smells I associate with Christmas, from apple cinnamon spice to egg nog to tangerine.
As long as I can hold on to the memories of Christmas past, I don't mind missing out on the celebrations, present or future, which doesn't mean I've totally alienated myself from Christmas. In fact, I think I could continue to enjoy the twelve days of Christmas as a secular winter holiday season.
And it's not a big deal whether I get Christmas presents or not. It's more important to give than to receive, anyway, and there are many ways to give every day of the year but, since it's Christmas, I can still remember the Christmas past and be merry, knowing that in being still and not forcing anything, nothing is left undone, as Laozi, the Taoist sage, once said.
I am at peace with Christmas.