As Immigrants, My Family Made Christmas Up As We Went Along

The year we landed as official, stay-for-sure immigrants, we celebrated our very first Christmas.
Publish date:
December 13, 2014
holiday, holidays, immigration, weekend, adaptations, Immigrants, Cultural Differences

A little while ago, my friend Vivek Shraya wrote a blog post about how his family would ask him, “Do you want to celebrate Diwali or Christmas this year?” And I started thinking about my own family’s Christmas traditions.

I think all immigrant families go through a period of adjustment to a new culture, but the big holidays can be a bit confusing: it’s easy to fake, but mostly you’re just guessing. That’s kind of what makes it fun! Building your own Christmas from the ground up!

My parents are immigrants. I was born in Canada. When I was three or four, my parents decided to go back to Japan. Months into resettling in Japan, my dad assessed the situation and decided that his odds were better in Canada. About a year later, we moved back. So I’m both Canadian-born and an immigrant, I guess.

The year we landed as official, stay-for-sure immigrants, we celebrated our very first Christmas. My parents had been aware of Christmas, but I don't think they had ever celebrated it before. That year, it seemed they were determined to have a Christmas and do it right. We went to a lot and chose a tree -- my dad insisted on authenticity and was adamantly against getting a fake one. My mom still hangs the dried-out Play-doh angels we made.

None of it was religious, despite the angels, despite school friends desperate to take us to their churches and convert us (some years later, we ended up at a gospel service for some reason).

It was only the BABY Jesus. Baby Jesus was uncontroversial. We love babies! We were having a Christmas without much of the baggage that comes with living in a Christian household. There was no agonizing over reconciling the sacredness of the holy day and the worldly consumerism and semi-competitive, side dish wielding relatives. Mom made sushi alongside the turkey (a chicken, actually -- what family could get through that much meat?) and we were grateful for some time off.

We gave each other presents and left cookies and milk out for Santa. I knew that Santa wasn’t real, but I didn’t want my parents to know that I knew because they put some effort into maintaining that lie, and I didn't want to hurt their feelings. I did believe that seeing gifts before the actual day would make them disappear. Where did that come from? Did we make it up? I still don’t hunt around for the secret hiding places.

And, oh, was it fun! The singing, the food, the shiny shiny tinsel and everything glittering. The magic of waking up every hour between bedtime and morning, anxious to open presents. There was that one year I was pretty sick, but then my present was a stuffed kangaroo and joey -- yaaaay! I don’t think I ever had an unhappy Christmas.

But thinking back on all that, maybe it wasn’t so uncomplicated.

One of the things I remember now is how Christmas was pretty much mandatory, in school and in public. It kind of symbolizes how much we were encouraged to assimilate, and in our family, we try to do a good job. Unlike other Japanese-Canadian kids, there was no Saturday Japanese school for us -- we needed English more, for school. We changed our names to English names. I went by “Mary” for many years, changed it back when I was 11 or 12 and I’m still struggling with how I should pronounce the Japanese name I was given at birth. My dad wanted us to fit in.

Fat lot of good that did. We were never going to fit in.

We started school in Canada as Japanese-speakers; we finished the year barely remembering our original language. That winter, each class did a Christmas presentation and ours did a Nativity scene, and I remember vaguely that the only Jewish girl in class got the part of the Virgin Mary. There were latkes and a quick nod to Hannukah. I wonder how she felt through all that. (That was also the first time I had sour cream -- mazel tov!)

Don’t get me wrong; I was very lucky to have had really good parents and a stable home. But I can’t help but think: did picking up Christmas with such gusto cover up a loss of something else? Or did we add our own DNA into it, keeping the stuff we liked and politely declining the parts we didn’t?

I still love it. I’m looking forward to having a big dinner and watching my nephews and niece open their presents. It still feels like a celebration, and it’s still evolving -- my little brother’s now vegan, and we include my brother-in-law’s big family too.

Besides, we still do up a Japanese New Year’s Day brunch and have tiny cups of warm sake and mochi and all the symbolic foods to eat to ensure a good year. Big credit to my mom, who cooks all day on New Year’s Eve, goes to a party and still manages to put it all together in the morning. Christmas is the big, showy spectacle. New Year’s Day is quiet and nice and the only time in the year we observe a Japanese holiday in earnest, together.

A lot has changed since I was a kid, though. Schools are a lot more inclusive and society generally is becoming more aware that there are many, many winter season celebrations around the world, and there are some notable common themes: gathering of family or community, the warmth of home, and the return of light during a dark time. We are moving away from either/or to being able to do it all: also/and. This is what I hope for in our future, so we don’t have to choose. Two presents this year, kids.

In that spirit, have a listen to my friend Vivek’s gorgeous Diwali/Christmas EP here.