I love being in a relationship with such variety. I love being exposed to Aya’s Japanese culture, and she loves being exposed to my American culture with my family’s Polish heritage. We try to raise Ellie, and now Chloe, with a nice mix of both. Blending holiday traditions between two different families is difficult enough, but it can be even more challenging when you’re blending traditions from two different countries with very different cultures.
My family’s Christmas traditions kicked-off after Thanksgiving with a family effort of Christmas-izing the house. While my mom began decorating the interior, my brother and I helped my dad with the exterior illumination. The long process of checking bulbs, replacing fuses, stringing lights over bushes and draping them from the roof. Every year it was a constant struggle with my mom as we pushed for more lights. “You want more lights? And you want them to flash to the music!?” she’d gasp as we enthusiastically explained our ideas to her.
But whether we got approval or not, we always came together when putting up the tree. Every year, we each picked out a new ornament to decorate the tree with. The ornament usually represented an event that signified that year. So as we decorated the tree, we’d reminisce from Christmas pasts as we saw the ornaments with our names and dates written on them.
Once the house had been transformed into our own warm, cozy, holiday wonderland, the rest of December revolved around preparations for Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. Christmas shopping, Christmas baking, prepping Christmas dinners, and practicing Christmas music to be played at midnight mass at church. And in the midst of all these preparations, at some point we always watched the popular Christmas movie, A Christmas Story (Can you believe Aya has never seen this movie?).
All of this led to our family Christmas celebrations starting at my grandma’s house Christmas Eve where she’d cook for twenty, even though there were only six of us. After dinner, my brother, dad, and I would perform for the family. The instrumentation always seemed to change as our ages and playing abilities changed, but it was always some combination of trumpet, saxophone, piano, and drums (one year I played the kazoo just to fit in because I couldn’t do anything else).
Christmas Eve ended with us attending midnight mass at our church and Christmas Day began with my brother and I exploding down the stairs after we “fake brushed” our teeth. And after our small family celebration in the morning at home, it was off to my grandpa’s to celebrate with my mom’s side of the family.
Looking back, between the traditions and abundance of fun family gatherings, I couldn’t have imagined a better childhood Christmas experience. Aya’s experience however, was very different from mine.
Christmas in Japan is not a national holiday and with less than 1% of the population being Christian, it’s not celebrated in the true sense, but rather extremely commercialized. Instead of it being more of a family affair, it’s more of a couple’s event. Almost like a glorified Valentine’s Day filled with romantic dinners and couples’get-a-ways.
One year, Aya and I spent Christmas in Japan with her family. On Christmas Eve we went out to dinner with her parents and the entire restaurant was filled with young couples in love having intimate romantic dinners. And there in the middle of the dining lovers was Aya and myself, with her parents. At least we didn’t gaze into each other’s eyes while sharing a dessert.
Roasted chicken seems to have become a popular Christmas dish over the years, and because of that, KFC got on the band wagon and started a Christmas dinner set that has become extremely popular on Christmas in Japan. Yes, KFC as in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Families put their order in weeks in advance and on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you’ll see a line out the door while people wait to pick up their orders.
So yes, Christmas in Japan is different. But Aya grew up in the U.S. during her younger years and her parents tried to give her that typical American Christmas with Santa Claus and Christmas trees. It’s just that they never experienced it themselves. Instead of being home on Christmas Eve and waking up excited the next morning, her family usually took Christmas break as a time to go on vacation. Aya had to wait until she got home from vacation to see what Santa had brought her. And instead of a big elaborate family Christmas dinner with extended family, they went out for Chinese just the three of them (her entire extended family is in Japan). They did have a Christmas tree when they lived here, but her mom purchased all the ornaments and decorated it by herself.
Once they moved back to Japan, Aya had one of the rare families among her friends that celebrated Christmas at all. Even though Christmas wasn’t as big of a deal in her house as it was in mine, she still enjoyed going out to dinner and exchanging presents with her parents.
Now that we are married and have our own family, I’m anxious to begin our own traditions. But how do we blend our own traditions when they are so vastly different? Mine, like out of a Norman Rockwell painting with homemade cookies and church, and Aya’s with vacation and Chinese food. Since we don’t have to juggle time between families we always just do what my family does. And because of that, most of what we do in our house is mostly influenced by my family.
I consider Aya to be a very positive, happy, generous person, but at Christmas she doesn’t share the same vibrancy that I do. For example, I want to bake cookies and watch Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, and Aya’s idea of getting into the holiday mood is to watch Die Hard. A few days before Christmas when she was cranky and 8 months pregnant with Ellie, I remember her saying, “I just want to watch Die Hard, and eat red meat!”
Aya takes a hands-off approach as I prepare the house for Christmas. She’s usually indifferent on everything. She likes having lights on the house and me putting a tree up, but she’d be fine if we didn’t do any of it. I don’t want her living my holiday, or my family’s holiday. I want it to be our holiday, with our family.
I’ve exhausted myself over the past few years trying to find and force things to be our traditions, not to mention trying to get Aya excited. But this year I’ve noticed that as we grow as a family, transitions are forming organically (and so is Aya’s excitement). Plus, this is only Ellie’s first year really understanding who Santa is and what he does. So as both Chloe and Ellie get older, I’m going to stop forcing things and be open and let them come about. Because, after all, that’s how things happened with both of our families.
This year on Christmas Eve, we will be ordering Chinese take-out and Aya will be watching A Christmas Story for the first time.
But really, whether it’s eating dinner in or out, or watching TV or not, the only thing that matters to me is that we are together and enjoying each other’s company as a family. And if she doesn’t like the movie, we always have Die Hard to fall back on. “Yippie Kay Yay”
What holiday family traditions will you be doing this year?