Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Note the Differences - Christmas Time

Actually... Christmas is actually a big event in Japan, but not necessarily for the reasons that you might think. Firstly, Japan has a very small proportion of Christian followers (<1% by most reckoning... but that's still over 1 million people in total). Secondly, Christianity has seen many purges from the country over the centuries, and has to some extent persisted by not being overt in nature. Finally, as is often the way in Japan, the external trappings of Western Christianity have to a large extent been subverted for commercial and social enrichment (e.g. faux church white weddings).

It is the image of Christmas that is most appealing... and can you blame them? It is an image that the West has developed (and commercialised) for centuries... culminating in the Coca-Cola Santa folk-lore image of the 1930's. When we look at Christmas in Japan, it's like looking through a secular mirror of what our own Christmas is becoming, if not become. Yet, there's more to Christmas in Japan than the trees, decorations, Santa and presents...

Christmas in Japan is first and foremost a time of romance... and to be without a date on Christmas Eve is to have suffered one of the great social evils. Well - it might not be that bad, but it's close for the youth of Japan. In fact it's second only to Valentine's Day in terms of romantic overtures and commercialisation. This goes especially for single women...

The other odd thing about Christmas that is often talked about is the Japanese pseudo-tradition of eating KFC for Christmas dinner - and supposedly many Japanese pre-order months in advance to avoid disappointment. The odd thing was that when staying in Japan for Christmas with T-chan's family, we also had KFC (which I thought a little odd at the time), but they just assumed that this was their family thing to do. I've read that up to 1/3 of Japanese families partake of this tradition. KFC first came to Japan in 1970, yet, by 1974 the tradition of  "Christmas Chicken" had supposedly started in one of the first restaurants (in Aoyama).

Nowadays the dominance of KFC, thanks to it's Santa-like Colonel Saunders is unassailable (for now).

The other tradition is of course the Christmas Cake. Unlike the traditional fruit-cake/pudidngs that often adorn our tables in the Australia, the Japanese Christmas Cake is an extravagant affair... well, then again, most cakes are in Japan. The cakes themselves are often just sponge cakes, with strawberry and cream toppings. Sadly, single women in Japan always get it hard - and traditionally when they reached over 25 years of age and were still single, they were referred to as "Christmas Cakes"... which like their real counter-parts must be heavily discounted from the 25th in order to sell. Thankfully those days are gone (are they T-chan?)

And the other thing that is becoming more popular in Japan is the Western Santa Claus... such as our cold Sapporo friend here, photographed in Odori Kouen in very cold conditions)

Actually, Santa's with real beards are becoming especially popular these days, and many foreigners will earn a tidy sum coming to Japan to be the department store Santa. And they can be the most unlikely people.. ever heard of Santa living in Okinawa?

In the West, Christmas is generally associated with spending time with the family, and yet this is traditionally associated with New Years in Japan... but I'll post more about that shortly. The important thing for our family is however that Christmas is almost always a reminder of separation for us. No matter which way it turns out, either my wife or I will be missing our family over Christmas. And this is a common thing for many people sharing international weddings. Of course, whilst T-chan has no Japanese family here in Australia, she is part of a broader family of fellow emigré that spend their Christmas here in Australia with their partner's families.

Over this Christmas break, think back to your own traditions and the way you have spent the time leading up to and including the day. For most of us, a large amount of time is spent worrying about presents to buy, looking for presents to buy, or wondering how we might be able to pay for the presents we've just bought... let alone what presents we will ourselves get. It's good to take some time out from that rat-race and reflect on what Christmas (even from a secular point of view) means to our modern international societies.

So, as the Japanese say "Merii Kurisumasu", or メリークリスマス! And if you have your own Japanese Christmas traditions to add to the list, please drop me a line or send a comment.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Tree... L-kun's Moment of the Possible

Actually, we've had our Christmas tree up for more than 5-6 weeks already... so this post might be a little on the tardy side. We may have put the tree up a little early this year (is there a rule for this sort of thing?), but L-kun was adamant that we should put it up as EARLY AS POSSIBLE. It's amazing to me that even though L-kun is only three and a half years old, he still knows what time of year it is, and knows what the Christmas Tree means.... you find presents underneath it!

He really enjoyed helping Daddy set the tree up...  though he held largely a supervisory role. Learning to delegate is a great life skill, and apparently L-kun will soon be teaching me all about it.

But that's not to say it wasn't a serious business. After all, Santa-san is coming to put presents under the tree. The sooner it goes up, the sooner he - and the presents - will appear. At least that was how L-kun reasoned it. Seems quite logical to me too. The only problem is that he often looks questioningly at the tree, as if to say... Daddy.... I know how the presents 'get' here... let's not make a scene, I'll just turn my back for a few minutes and "Santa-san" <insert air quotes here> better get busy and put the presents there. 

Santa-san had however, other worries...For example, counting the possible ways that things can go horribly wrong when a little boy suddenly tries to eat a tree decoration. Er... L-kun, that's for the tree, not your tummy.

Actually, when I look at this photo now, I can't help but squirm. Bad things can happen in a blink of an eye... and even things that you think are harmless have a way of going awry. Parenting is often like riding a roller-coaster. Even though you see the twists and turns coming up, often it's down to faith that the car will continue to follow the tracks...

There really is something nice however about setting up the Christmas tree and enjoying the atmosphere of something special comnig. I wonder however if we often don't see the trees for the forest of expectations.
Christmas is a time of built-up expectations (not only with the simple things like gifts, relationships and our careers)... it's also very much about how we perceive ourselves and the benchmark we set for ourselves. Christmas often doesn't live up to those expectations... nor should it. That's a different story altogether.

This will be L-kun's 4th Christmas coming up. It's things like that which are the true joys of Christmas... of course, what makes it really fun is to see yor children's reactions. So Christmas Tree... what will we find under you in two sleeps time?... Hmmm... I wonder. 

And whilst Christmas is a time for transition - the old year gradually (and sometimes less than gracefully) coming to an end. It's also a time for hopes and sometimes sadness. Furthermore, it's very much a time for living in the moment... a truth that any three year old could have told you with a simple smile. If they could be heard with a Christmas bauble in their mouth, that is.

Christmas is the moment of maximum possibility, where past, present and future collide, and then exchange registration details amongst the carnage. So sit back in your roller-coaster car, take a deep breath and live in that moment known so well to any three year old. If only for a day or two before reality makes a begrudging return.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas by the River... Santa's Secret Wonderland.

Well - Adelaide may not have Melbourne's Myer Window Display, however we do have the fun of the West End Brewery Christmas Display... er... the what now? That's right, Brewery = Christmas Display is not a typical combination in everyday conversation. Just on the western outskirts of the CBD is the area known as Thebarton (or as some inter-staters have called it, "The Barton").  The site backs onto the main river Torrens that cuts through the city. The Brewery was first established in 1859. It says some thing important about Australia, and Adelaide in particular, that the brewery was up and producing beer for the masses only 23 years after the city was founded... it's pride and joy the Southwark Ales - which was later amalgamated with the West End brewery (and is now owned by Lion Nathan... which is weirdly... owned by Japanese Kirin brewing company. It's a small, small world.

Another century on, in 1958 the brewery decided  to establish a garden on the banks of the Torrens... basically to hide the unsightly dump that had evolved on the side of the river after a 100 years of drunken revelry... I mean distilling the nectar of the gods. Well, the following year, in 1959 they established the first of the Christmas decorations; which have grown to become an Adelaide Christmas tradition. I've just put together a few of the photos from a recent trip there with T-chan and L-kun (and myself). 

On the western end of the display we see the nativity scene...

Hmmm... taking out the zoom lens gives a slightly better perspective... and I have to say that Joseph must really be hanging out for his Remington shaver. As a very non-Christmas aside... Remington (the shaver company) did actually start life out of the firearms company - which also had another by-product. The QWERTY keyboard.... which chances are, you're still using this very day. Right now, I don't think Joseph has  typing, shaving or shooting on his mind.To be honest, he kinda looks like he's got drinking on his mind... a good cold Southwark Ale mayhaps?  

I always get a little put off by nativity scenes... they always kinda look like they just happened to find baby Jesus just lying around and don't quite know what to do with him.

Once you move on from the nativity scene, you quickly realise that this is more than a simple Christmas display. In fact, it's more a celebration of childhood than anything else. The displays consist of a number of fairytale and children song motifs.
The Fairy and her magic toadstools
I'm not entirely sure about what nursery rhyme this house comes from... Anyone have any ideas?...

 Actually, I've read on one website that it was described as the nativity inn... surely not. Knock knock...Hello people, the story is set in Bethlehem... on the West Bank in what used to be Palestine. Not the bleeding Swiss Alps! Oh well...I shouldn't get upset, but I think that may be taking just a few too many artistic licences with the story. Time changes everything.

Actually, it's amazing how much difference even a year can make. This time we were sweltering under 40-45degreeC temperatures. This year, we were struggling to get over 20 degrees. In fact, about 2 or so weeks ago storms ripped through Adelaide and dumped about 40+ mm of rain in one night. As a result, the Torrens river peaked 5m higher than normal damaging some of the displays. In fact, some of the displays are still missing
L-kun looks around... no floods tonight, Daddy?
One of the favourites is Vulcan and his volcanic workshop. He stands in his lair, hammering away relentlessly at his anvil. What's he making?... Most probably a door for some privacy. The thing that children love is that every so often the volcano belches out a column of smoke...

And as he hammers away, there are choreographed and timed sparks flying... accompanied by bellowing bangs and clangs. Actually, in close up it looks something more suitable to a Tarantino flick than a Christmas display. But this is a G-rated blog, so I'll leave it at that.

And another favourite is Moby Dick... hey - wasn't he a white whale? Clearly that would  be breaching copyright or something. We're kinda lucky that Moby made it at all... during the recent floods he was dislodged and almost made good an escape. He was clearly remembering the floods of 2005 when there really were huge water flows that took poor Moby on a ride several kilometres towards the sea. He almost did a Free Willy as well. They've increased security (and chains) since then however.

T-chan and L-kun look on... as will over 100,000 people over the month long display. Yeah, I guess Adelaide's a small town that we make a big deal about these sorts of things. Still, isn't it good to see the joy in even the small things?

Certainly Snow White did... er... I mean... platonic joy that is... I guess. Then again, who knows what went on in the wee hours of the night...

The Ferris Wheel is another focal point... the carriages depicting children from all around the world. A nice thought, but somewhat reduced in impact when set alongside Dorothy, The Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion (off to the left) from Wizard of Oz.  

Still, the reflection in the river makes for a nice view...

Another of the attractions, at the eastern end of the display is the carousel of toys... with all manner of different gifts.... at least I assumed they were toys...

The teddy bear seems a safe bet...aw, isn't he cute.

Maybe even the dragon (though the wind-up "Chinaman" was a little disturbing, and not the sort of thing I'd expect to find in my stocking come Christmas morn).

But then we get to the pièce de résistance, the ballerina. Is it me, or did they spend just a little too much time working up her curves?

I'm not entirely sure if the following is a symptom of the growing chorus of political correct mania, but good old Frosty the Snowman used to sport a pipe (stuck nonchalantly from his mouth). This year that's no more... Another less "big brother" reason for this social censoring could be that the good (but admitedly unhealthy) pipe got washed out to sea with the recent floods. Either, Frosty's looking like he's got a case of the cold turkeys. Ganbatte Frosty. You can do it.

And now we come to the highlight of the night.... with a hi-ho, and the stomping of reindeer feet (lead of course by Rudolf and his nose)... we know Christmas is just around the corner...

When Santa Claus' sley makes an appearance with his rocking reindeer.
Merry Christmas one and all!

Oh Santa-san, you crazy guy. You bring so much happiness to my son's life - even though we know he already knows who's really putting the presents under the tree. Mr American Express and his wife Visa. Still, L-kun will get quite upset if you even suggest that Santa may not stop over because (a) he's been naughty, (b) the house is too messy, or (c) coz Santa's knocked back a few to many "Christmas Cheers" to warm himself up on the long sleigh ride around the world...

And as we were about to depart... L-kun spotted something off in the distance...

A motorbike ride! Ok - Daddy will ride with you... let's hit the road, bikie man!

So it was a good night... though L-kun didn't get to bed till around 10pm (that's a bit too late, but every now and again doesn't hurt). Also, a good smile and laughter is worth a whole night of sleep to a person's heart. It was a great night, and even though it was a lot cooler this year, it was still a great experience. We'll have to try and go back again before the year is out.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas in Adelaide's Rundle Mall...

Adelaide - as I've mentioned, doesn't really have a huge "christmasy" feel to it... apart from a few obvious (and some might suggest overly ostentatious) trappings. Of course, for a 3 yo, it's all good stuff. And the one thing that they've done reasonably well this year is to provide some free entertainment for the kids in our main shopping area in the city, known as Rundle Mall. Ok... is it really hitting the Christmas message? No. Is it fun for kids? Yes. 

L-kun had a ball riding the tea-cups with Daddy and Mummy... hey, Mummy... smile for that camera! ?;-)
Almost a world exclusive.

Any way, it's not quite the Christmas look and feel that you might expect (especially from the Northern Hemisphere)... but the weather in December is normally a warm 30+ degrees, with a few milder days thrown in. This year has been strange... most of the days have been in the low 20's, with lots of rain and lots of wind. The weekend for example was a horrible, sometimes sunny, sometimes bucketing down with rain. Supposedly, the weather will turn around and we'll get 34 degC for Christmas. I didn't think I'd ever say this, but I am hoping for a hot Christmas this year!

Apart from a few concessions to shade in Rundle Mall, Adelaide's shopping areas are not really geared up for wintery weather. Unlike the huge underground malls in Sapporo, T-chan's home. But there's something also pleasant about an open mall. It's a civilised way of living - if not that convenient.

Still - you make the most of what you've got... L-kun was sooo happy to see the Rock'n'Tug boat... and we've long since discovered that these things make for great motivational tools... "L-kun, if you behave we can go for a ride on the tug-boat....".  I guess we shouldn't be surprised that children learn to be manipulative from an early age... they have good (and persistent) teachers.

So with only a few days before Christmas, I guess I should get into the spirit already... And wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a very relaxing Boxing Day to you too Santa-san!

PS - One final note - can anyone seriously look at this and not think of the marshmallow man from the movie Ghostbusters? Or is it just me?

PPS - And for all those that know about Adelaide, you might now know where exactly the Mall's Balls came from.... Christmas baubles of course. What did you think I meant?...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Christmas Tale.... Melbourne's Myer Window Display

December, 2010 - On a recent trip to Melbourne I was lucky enough to come across the Christmas window display in the Myers department store in the Burke Street Mall. For those that are unfamiliar with Australia, Melbourne is the capital city of the state of Victoria, and long time arch-nemesis of Adelaide... though they they themselves see Sydney as their arch-nemisis... now that I think of it, who considers Adelaide their nemisis. Hopefully someone out there.

BTW - these were taken with my so-so mobile camera, so appologies for the quality. Those phones are damned handy however in an emergency!

Anyhow... I thought I'd just throw some photos up, coz I was kinda impressed. The window displays tell a story, actually narrated by Santa (of course), and the figures are all wonderfully detailed and animated (I have no idea how, but it was well done). The story itself, well, that would take too long to explain, but needless to say there was a Christmas tree, and lots of dancing (kinda Jane Austen-ish).

As Santa explained, there's got to be a beautiful damsel. Actually, Santa's looking a little Evil Santa here...especially with his army of toy soldiers behind him. 

And as is the wont of these stories, there's of course a dashingly handsome prince-like figure, who enjoys riding swans and chaining up dolphins for his transportation pleasure.

There is some market bazaar action as well...  

And what Christmas story would be complete without some freakish long-legged clown figures... it would appear that there was more than carpets being sold at that bazaar!... This must be the Fellini-esque version of  the Christmas Tale. 

And did someone mention the levitating cake decorations? 

Still when you've had this much Christmas Cheer, you may as well have a nice romantic (though somewhat foggy) dance. Just as long as it doesn't start raining cake decorations. This cake wasn't like some sort of "special brownie" was it?

And to cap it off... a horse drawn carriage ride through some kind of psychadelic tunnel through the time-space continuum. 

So I guess, I can honestly say that I envy Melbournians their Christmas displays. That's some crazy stuff right there, but I wish it was the crazy sort of stuff that we had here in Adelaide. I have to say that Adelaide has a lot to learn from our big brother across the border. It's quite strange, but Adelaide has (or at least had) a fairly strong arts community... but we seem to lack the sort of pizazz that you see in large international cities. But we'll see shortly the sorts of things that Adelaide has to offer...