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December 24, 2013

BEAM: Merii kurisumasu

— Christmas is Santa’s birthday.

That’s what some Japanese seventh graders told me once. I was smack dab in the middle of doing a one year stint as a middle school English teacher in the small, rural town of Tanushimaru, Japan. Only one other American lived in the city of 30,000, so I was both an oddity and an opportunity.

The children loved to practice their English on me, choosing words out of dictionaries or plucking strange phrases out of popular pop songs. A couple of the “Yankee” boys who showed their wild, rebel nature by bleaching orange streaks in their hair could only muster a couple of vulgarities. Even when chastising them, I felt a certain pride that at least they were learning. If pressed, you might even have to admit they had the greatest understanding of American English of them all.      

As the girls presented me with a beautifully wrapped gift, the three were intoxicated with laughter. Like old mechanical tin toys, their hands would rise up to shield their mouths keeping their smiles a mystery. Moments earlier, we had just finished our holiday lesson. And yes, it was a true holiday lesson. We spoke of Kwanza and Hanukkah and, of course, Christmas. Less than one percent of Japanese practice a religion other than Buddhism or their native Shintoism. More than 60 percent of the population don’t identify with any faith at all.

Despite this, Japanese people do celebrate Christmas and have a basic secularized notion of it. With few practicing Christians, Jesus is nowhere to be found. Couples go out for dinner and exchange presents on Christmas Eve, making it more of a romantic holiday like Valentine’s Day. Santa visits children in their homes and leaves presents. Malls are decorated with festive lights, and Christmas cake, a sort of sweet spongy dessert, is served alongside fried chicken. Yes. Fried chicken. KFC developed an ad campaign in the 1970s, and the tradition has stuck. Santa and the Colonel do have some striking similarities, I’ll give them that.

What the children gave me, I can’t remember. Most likely it was some stationary, or a postcard of Leonardo Dicaprio, or even a remembrance of Princess Diana. Not only was her death, just months earlier, still being mourned, but some of the students nicknamed me Amanda-Hi, or Princess Amanda, because in their minds I resembled the fallen icon. To them, I also looked like Kate Winslet, Julia Roberts, and, to a few cheeky ones, Dicaprio too.

After the girls delivered their present, they wished Santa a happy birthday. I cringed. Being raised a Southern Baptist will do that to you.

“No, sweeties, Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth on that day,” I said.

The girls chuckled once more and wandered off, most likely wondering who this guy Jesus was and why he never brought them cool gifts. There was a certain quid pro quo with Santa that justified his generosity. The children revered him, some might even say worshipped. Wasn’t that the true reason for the season?

That was 1997. Sixteen years later, America is starting to look like Japan more and more. According to sociologists at the University of California Berkley, 20 percent of Americans don’t consider themselves part of any religion. In 1990, only eight percent harbored the same view.

While we consider ourselves Christians, my family doesn’t attend weekly religious services. We just haven’t found a church we are comfortable with, one where we feel at home. Of course, you can go to church three times a week and pray twenty times a day and still lose your way. We’ve all seen it. The show of devotion can supersede the purpose behind it.  

Where as a child I went to Christmas cantatas, my kids celebrate the season by playing in holiday basketball tournaments. The children know about the story of Jesus’ birth, but they’re more concerned with Santa’s sleigh. We adopt off the Angel Tree and slide dollars in the bell ringers’ kettles, yet ten times as much is spent on gifts that wait under the tree. No KFC chicken has been ordered yet, although it’s just a matter of time.

The media and government and big business aren’t taking Christ out of Christmas. Christians are. That includes yours truly, even though I’m really trying to correct it in my own home.

That’s where Christ, and Christmas, flourishes, really. His spirit thrives in our homes, and most importantly, in our hearts. So from the bottom of ours, the Beam family wishes you a very Merry Christmas. And, to those of every faith, have a magnificent New Year.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at adbeam47@aol.com

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