COLUMN: Celebrating Christmas in Toyokoro

Christmas in Hokkaido isn’t truly ignored, but it is purely secular

I spent Christmas in Toyokoro.

It was a quiet day at the Board of Education offices, with the first mention of Christmas coming from me when I brought out some homemade cake mid-afternoon.

It wasn’t quite my first time being at work on Christmas, as I worked in a restaurant back in my early 20s, nor was it my first Christmas away from my family (although that was back in the same era when being with my boyfriend’s family was close enough.)

This was, however, certainly my first “non-Christmas.”

I had decided to handle it by 90 per cent denial, 10 per cent participation.

I did wake up early to FaceTime with my boys as they prepared brunch in my Victoria kitchen.

Then, Japanese-style, I went to work.

Christmas in Hokkaido isn’t truly ignored, but it is purely secular and mostly acknowledged as a couple’s celebration or a fun event for small children who love a visit from “Santa-san.”

The elementary schools have Christmas trees, but the junior high made no mention of the day.

My friend Chiaki hosted a Christmas potluck party on the weekend before, with a mixture of Japanese and North American guests.

We ate quiche, breads and salads, with Noriyuki roasting a chicken, and one guest contributing an excellent venison stew which reminded me of home.

Then we had a “white elephant” gift exchange, all gifts under 1,000 yen ($10) and the option of stealing someone’s opened gift rather than choosing one’s own wrapped gift.

I observed this process with a sociologist’s mindset, and had my hypotheses confirmed.

First was the ubiquitous “janken” (rock/paper/scissors) to randomly and fairly determine who would draw the first of the numbers to determine the gift picking order.

Then, we proceeded clockwise to draw numbers, and numerically to choose gifts.

When there is no hierarchy set by custom, it must be set by randomized procedure.

As for the “steal” aspect of the game, usually ruthlessly competitive in Canada, not one person took the option to steal until the 12th of 12, a Canadian raised visitor of Japanese descent who, thinking he couldn’t fit the remaining large, square gift in his luggage, stole the bag of snacks instead.

I had suspected that the stealing would be a stretch in this culture, unless perhaps as a favour to an earlier participant who had chosen a totally unsuitable gift.

I might have been tempted to stir up some trouble myself, except I was fortunate to pick a bag holding a pair of lightweight, lined, waterproof gloves rated to -60 degrees.

I will have warm, dry hands the next time I am shovelling snow!

The remainder of my acknowledgment of Christmas consisted of a foiled attempt to take a photo of frosted foliage to post with a greeting on FaceBook.

I woke on the 25th, not to the clear skies and icy trees of the previous weeks, but to the sound of rain falling on snow packed streets with the now-fulfilled promise of frozen slush tracks. Happy New Year!

P.S. For anyone interested in some amazing photos of Hokkaido’s landscape and wildlife, check out my fellow language teacher’s website at

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