The Meaning of Christmas
Last night I went to the Seibu department store in Ikebukuro and bought Christmas decorations. Two: a mini-wreath and a tiny plastic tree. I put the wreath on my front door, because our '70s apartment hallway is lifeless, like that "Elegaic Photos" Twitter account. I got the idea from other floors' hallways: some people put up plants, and I really appreciate that. I put the tree in my living room to look at when I pass by. That's nothing noteworthy, but it was the first time that I, as an adult, thought "I am going to decorate my home for Christmas," and then went out and did it. Sure, when living in Chicago, I'd look over at the Macy's holiday displays... but the desire to decorate stopped there. It would come and go, accompanying four weeks of relentless music, waxy chocolate advent calendars, apple cider, a pleasant few days at my parents', maybe snow, definitely cold, cookies, probably a cranberry here or there...
Japan celebrates Christmas. Not in the religious sense, but like much of America, in the 'buy things!' sense. Even a tiny train station's mall in Niigata Prefecture, 30 or so days before the actual holiday, was celebrating Christmas! Sure, there weren't any Christmas "goods" or deals there, but for whatever reason, someone had put up the banner. There must have been a meeting by the mall committee as to what they should do for Christmas. I wonder who suggested the banner. Like any post-industrial society, Japan loves holidays. I think holidays are one way that consumerist societies organize and punctuate the flow of time. "Ah, I'm tired... but it's a holiday in only two weeks..." And again and again. Like the push and pull of leveling up in a grindy MMORPG like Maple Story: the flow of time is punctuated by the progression of an EXP bar. 0-25% is misery, self-questioining. You try to forget and numb yourself through 25-75%. 80% is hope. 90% is ecstasy, up until the bar climaxes at 100%... and then you start all over. Happy New Year!
In America the clearance aisle of a Target is as valid of a clock as any. I'd often be like "what day is it...? Oh, there's barbeqeue sauce and streamers over there.. must be near the 4th of July..."
(The caption says: "Die, Mario!")
I was walking around Omotesando on Halloween night with some friends. Omotesando is a part of Tokyo that could be seen as a large outdoors shopping mall for hip teens, people in their 20s, and rich tourists. There's some art galleries and music venues, but, it's mostly a shopping mall. We passed by a row of about 6 or 7 gaudy sports cars revving their engines. In the driver seat were what I can recall as "chuffed teenage boys", sitting with... their girlfriends? I wonder what these couples talk about. The relationship probably hangs in the balance of both sides maintaining some kind of careful illusion manifested by beauty or wealth... I hope they find peace.
But anyways. Where... the hell did they get these cars from? I can't even recognize the brands. Then again, I don't know much about cars... but as I pondered such very very exciting questions, we made eye contact with a few of the drivers. Some of them looked back with a face to the tune of "wahoo! yeehaw!". Then they drove off one by one. It was funny as shit. It was stupid as hell. Once in high school, I pretended my automatic transmission car was a manual to impress a girl until she asked what the hell I was doing and I stopped.
A store was changing out their Halloween displays for Christmas ones. In another store a group of manager-types stood around in a circle, talking. In the next, a man was standing inside a white, foam-filled display, pondering where to place something. Another store was ahead of the curve, and already had red and green shiny stuff out.
Luckily, I didn't move to Japan to get away from anything, because yesterday when shopping I walked into what looked a little like... a cut and paste. Of the luxury candy aisle near the Pringles from a Walgreens. I used to buy boxes of Ferrero Rocher for students to share before we ended the school term. Lindt has their own store, and is like twice as expensive as the USA. They have a really pretty store, they make mountains of the shiny-wrapped chocolates for you to choose from and bag. For all the differences, there really is a lot that's the same about the two countries once we approach the sphere of shopping.
Shelves full of merchandise that - once unsold - what happens to it? I feel like I'm looking down from the head of a river of these items' life cycles, that starts at a factory, stops at this store, then ends up at something like artist Jenny Odell's "Bureau of Suspended Objects" . Can you recycle a $200 snow globe? I've started ballparking the cost of decorated trees I see all over the city... surely, someone is making money.
I remembered the nightmare McMansion listing I saw on Twitter the other day, with room after room full of Christmas decorations. The owners weren't demons or whatever, the reality of that home is... mundane and disappointing: it's rich people acting out their half-baked ideals and childhood nostalgias in material excess, going from the point of reasonableness ("Okay, decorating a little, sure") to pure insanity ("We want to make a wonderland where Christmas happiness is eternal!"). It's equivalent to my decision to buy a little plastic tree, times 10,000,000. That is: the scary thing about having disposable income is that there's this little dark seed that, if out of control, could grow into a Christmas Nightmare McMansion. You have to keep the darkness in check. Like the little dark goblin spirit thing following around Ged in Wizard of Earthsea.
I find a lot about dense cities relaxing. Although maybe, ambiently tense. I've been travelling outside Tokyo on occasion and doing some very mild hiking (I am outdoorsy until the very shallow point at which I get nervous). When in Tokyo, eating kebab, sitting on the curb and staring at giant Christmas lights, surrounded by other people - that experience, on some level doesn't feel too different from standing in a bunch of quiet trees, even though they're technically opposites.
My local 7-11 put out a little tree with ornaments, and also added red flashing lights to their street sign. The shopping plaza near my station hung large snowflake decorations. Pop-up stores selling holiday-themed drinks are now everywhere. It's fun, but that's kind of it. Endless halls of stores. I'm always struck by the luxury goods floor of Seibu: cold, mirror-filled and marbled halls of watch and jewelry stores, fully staffed but with only one or two customers sitting down, carefully picking, comparing, and discussing which watch they're going to buy. I see a lot of similarities in luxury watch-buying and maid cafes in the level of simulated attention and service that clients get. Different flavors, same thing.
Outside of the commercial areas, though, the Christmas isn't too excessive: it feels more like a shopping season than something people really celebrate at home, kind of like Halloween here. Some homes have lights, but most people don't care. Gaudy Tokyo shopping districts always give the impression that everyone really cares about the holidays, but I think, at least in Christmas's case, the average person probably doesn't have much of an opinion.
For me, putting a symbol of Christmas in my home serves the same purpose as when I put up family photos, except it's seasonal. I had a fortunate childhood and have nostalgia for my hometown and home. I don't really care about the presents or religious stuff, it was just a fun time to spend with family. It's a physical way of connecting one place to another across oceans. It's nostalgic, something I can glance over at, and feel grounded for a little moment. Also, decorating is kind of fun, up to a point. Living overseas can be cool, but it's also depressing in many ways. I'm lucky to have the internet and some friends.
Which is why I just bought this tiny tree and a tiny wreath. Not too much, mostly under control.