A Japanese backpacker’s experience of three different types of Christmas

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Image Credit: Erica Yokoyama

In Japan, people typically associate the advent of Christmas with a litany of ads by KFC for their various Christmas deals, which occupy commercial breaks all day long. Immediately after Halloween, all retail stores play Mariah Carey on repeat, and the already bright lights of Tokyo are intensified with festive displays. In Japanese culture, where most young people conventionally spend their Christmas with their partners, envious singles often resort to ‘anti-couple’ hate speech.

But in 2012, I did not spend Christmas in Japan as I had in the past. Aged 17 and with this Japanese interpretation of Christmas in mind, I had the unique pleasure of spending that festive season in three different locations across Europe. It was my second winter in Wales where I went to an international boarding school under a studying-abroad programme. As the school closed during the winter break, students were required to leave college. But instead of buying an expensive fare back to Japan, I was lucky enough to spend it with not one but three of my European
friends. This is how my one-month backpacking adventure across Belgium, Norway and Macedonia began.

My first destination was Brussels, Belgium. Here, people celebrate “St. Nikolaus Day” on the 6th December, in addition to Christmas itself on the 25th. St. Nikolaus was a Christian bishop of the ancient Greek city Myra who saved many vulnerable people including the poor and children. In countries like Belgium, the day of his death has been celebrated as St. Nikolaus Day since the 14th century. Children put their shoes next to the fireplace, hoping to receive presents. I felt tremendous excitement at the moment when I found my size 4.5 shoe filled with speculaas, gingerbread and chocolate coins. We travelled to Bruges, where I was stuck by the beauty of the Christmas market. Of course, this trip would not have been complete without tucking into some Belgium waffles.

On the 22nd of December, I travelled to Oslo, Norway, where I met up with my second friend. Norway originally celebrated “Jul,” the winter solstice, which, in the 10th century, was merged with Christmas. The preparation for Jul was very intense, starting with the purchase of an actual Christmas tree. As a Japanese girl who had only ever seen plastic Christmas trees, I was thrilled to carry the two-meter-high wild tree all the way from the Norwegian woodlands. We found ourselves very busy in the lead up to Christmas as we prepared the feast: baking Christmas cookies, decorating gingerbread houses, and shining silverware. More than 20 guests gathered for our party which we spent enjoying great food, playing board games, and singing and dancing around the Christmas tree.

“I found my size 4.5 shoe filled with speculaas, gingerbread and chocolate coins.”

I also won the ‘Marzipan pig’, by finding an almond in my porridge. It is traditional in Norway that at Christmas, cinnamon-flavoured milk porridge is distributed to the guests. One of the bowls contains an almond, and the person which receives that bowl is considered to be lucky. The following morning, I received so many presents that I was charged for extra baggage on the flight back!

I moved to Skopje in Macedonia at the beginning of January and unexpectedly encountered my third Christmas. In Macedonian Orthodox custom, Christmas is celebrated on 7th January, following the Julian Calendar. Prior to that, on the 5th, there is a festival called “Kolede”. Children were moving from house to house singing carols in exchange for sweets, money, and fruits, while the adults were drinking homemade Rakija (fruit brandy) and dancing the whole night through. When it comes to partying, Macedonians are the best. I could barely believe that they had just had their New Year’s bash a few days ago! On the other hand, in “Badnik,” the Christmas Eve dinner, Macedonians enjoy uniquely modest dishes, including nuts, beans, roasted fish and Ajvar, a red-pepper dip. There’s also a Macedonian equivalent of the Norwegian porridge game, where a coin is embedded in bread, and the person who finds it is supposed to be lucky for the coming year. That year, the prize went to my friend’s dog.

So there you have it, three different Christmases in the space of just over a month! I am indebted to my friends for
welcome me so warmly and cheering me up when I felt homesick. It was truly the most beautiful winter of my life. In the winter of 2018, now 24-years-old, I returned to Europe and plan to spend this Christmas in the UK, with mince pies, turkey, yorkshire puddings and all the trimmings; of course with gravy.

Vrolijk Kerstfeest! God Jul! Среќен Божик! And Merry Christmas!