I was resigned to spend my first Christmas alone. Not completely alone – there were a few ALTs that decided to stay for the holidays, but it would be my first time with no plan for a dinner or party to attend.
My first Christmas away from home happened 3 years ago, oddly enough in Japan. But while I was away from family I made new friends at a hostel in Kyoto and had a blast a their X-Mas Party. It can be strange not going home for the holidays – for birthdays, weddings, funerals – and sometimes time suspends itself. I didn’t fully realize it was Christmas until the 24th of December rolled around and I attended a junior high school closing ceremony.
It’s not to say that Japan is without Christmas. Stores set up Christmas trees and decorations, bakeries take orders for Christmas Cakes, and cafes and restaurants play carols in the background. It is fun and light. It is a party. Not many of my students realized – I taught a Christmas lesson and game – that the ‘CHRIST’ in Christmas is because it is considered to be the birthday of Jesus to Christians.
But I sort of expected that, Japan is not a Christian country and has only a small Christian minority. Kyushu is a good place to learn about Japan’s history with Christianity – Nagasaki is a good place to start.
I was surprised to find a church not far from my house. I kept putting off going to there, too. I wasn’t sure if anyone in the congregation spoke English and – if I’m honest – I was a little intimidated. But it was Christmas Eve and I felt like I was missing something important.
Imagine my surprise when I walked awkwardly up to the pastor helping kids lite candles that he spoke English! He became excited when I told him I was from Minnesota. Somehow I found a Japanese pastor who had studied at Luther Seminary in Minnesota some 20 years ago.
I had arrived early and took a seat in the small sanctuary watching the congregation greet one another. I was surprised to watch the church fill to the brim with families. No one was afraid to sit in the front! (Lutheran stereotype #1 they always sit in the back). As the service started the lights dimmed and everyone turned on an electric candle. Everything was spoken and sung in Japanese but I knew enough Japanese and Christmas stories to follow the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
The hymns were always my favorite at church. That night I got a crash course in Japanese Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Joy to the World. Every so often I would sing the English verse under my breath.
After the service I stuck around for coffee and cookies. Back home, not many people stayed for a long time but here the entire congregation stayed – trying to fit into a smaller side room! – for an extra 20 minutes. It here that I was invited to go caroling to houses around Karatsu and invited for dinner Christmas Day.
I had expected to be alone this Christmas Eve. I didn’t realize how much it bothered me until I met the pastor and was welcomed by many people. It was a wonderful Christmas Surprise with new friends and a lightened heart.
I hope you all had a Happy Holidays. If you have any strange or amazing holiday (not just winter!) stories feel free to share in the comments. I would love to hear about them.
Happy New Year!