When our favorite babysitter, Nakamura san, slid open the door that led from the garden to the living room, she did not notice our Christmas tree placed in the spot where she usually stepped up into the house. Nakamura san walked right in to it as she removed her shoes to come inside, knocking it over with a big crash. My brother David and I heard the sound and came running down the stairs into the living room. When we saw the catastrophe of the turned over tree, the glass ornaments shattered across our floor, we let out blood curdling screams of horror.
“Nakamurasan!” we shouted. “Nani o shitan da?!” (“What have you done?!”)
She hurriedly stood the tree back up, and tried to put things back together as well as she could. Several ornaments, however, had been crushed into hundreds of pieces of shining glitter and there was no way they could be repaired. No way at all.
In our home in Mitaka, Japan, a Christmas tree was a big splurge, purchased from a florist near the train station. Cut and shipped from the West Coast of the U.S. in early September, by the time it reached Tokyo it was dry and brittle, barely green. It wasn’t even that big – maybe five feet tall at best. But we thought it was exquisite.
Since we were the only gaijin (foreigners) in our part of the city, the florist probably ordered it just for us, hoping we’d show up to buy. There may have been a few others in Mitaka who bought a Christmas tree, but I know for a fact that we were the only family in our neighborhood with one. Dad lugged it home two miles balanced on his shoulder since he couldn’t get on the bus with it, and no taxi driver in his right mind would pick up a gaijin hauling a tree.
The trimming did not take long. During our first couple of years in Japan, we didn’t even have lights on the tree. Later, we did have one string of lights with multi-colored bulbs the size of a lemon. David and I stood back, wringing our hands in excitement as we watched Mom and Dad attach the lights. They started at the bottom circling around the tree, handing the string off to each other like a dance as they worked their way up, ending with the one white bulb at the top for the star. It was a special moment when Dad squeaked the last bulb through the hole in the middle of the glittery cardboard star. We craned our necks up to see that shining star far out of our reach.
Mom ceremoniously plugged the lights in, and we all, almost by instinct, backed up slowly across the tatami floor in our sock feet, squinting our eyes so the lights spread out into tiny little beams, blending the colors of the rainbow that filled the room.
Then we moved on to ornaments. We had one set each of large and small glass balls which were stored in a box with round cut out circle slots to keep them from banging into each other and breaking. David and I hung the less fragile pine cones Mom had spray painted gold and tied with red cord ribbon.
One year, for some extra drama, Mom and Dad decided to provide an old-fashioned Christmas tree experience. They clipped a dozen tin candle holders mailed to us from America to the very outsides of the tree so flames wouldn’t be under another branch. Dad then filled two metal buckets to the rim with water and placed them by the tree. The small fire extinguisher from the kitchen was retrieved and Dad held it in one hand as Mom lit the candles one by one. We sang Silent Night in the dark, standing around our beautiful tree as the little flames flickered in our kindling house made of paper, straw and wood. I could almost hear Mom and Dad sigh with relief when all twelve candles were blown out, thankful that not only had we not burned down our own house, we had not burned down the entire neighborhood of match stick houses built so close together you could practically touch the neighbor’s house out the window.
As part of our missionary duties, we hosted children’s Christmas parties which included a compulsory activity when my friends were paraded to the nativity scene to learn the Christmas story. Our creche was displayed on the kazaridana, a decorative piece of furniture for artwork. A small wooden shoji screen with translucent white paper sat behind it, adding a Japanese touch to the manger scene, bringing the characters from the Bible to life with us in Japan.
A few minutes before my friends arrived for the party each year, I summoned up my sweetest voice and courage and asked,
“Mama, at the party, umm,“ I hesitated, knowing the answer before I even asked,
“Do we have to do the part where we tell the Christmas story?”
The answer was always,
“Yes, we do.” No further explanation, no reprimanding, but this was non-negotiable.
I was never led to the butsudan (a Buddhist display shelf) in my friends’ homes and instructed about what the different elements meant, although I was always curious. I kept my distance from that lacquered black stand with photos, incense, flowers, food and shiny objects, not wanting to offend or do something I shouldn’t. I wanted to get up close to touch and breathe its perfume.
Everyone who entered our house during the Christmas season was drawn to our Christmas tree like a magnet through sight, smell, and the pure novelty of it all. Our guests crept up to the tree as if it might break, closely admiring the glass balls, gently tapping them with their fingernails to hear the clink and make them sway back and forth as they looked at their own distorted reflection in them. Children from the neighborhood came to the house to see the tree on December afternoons. Church members of all ages came to admire the tree on Sundays after church. Mom’s English students and neighborhood women ogled the tree when she invited them for Christmas cookies and tea, and even my mother’s Jewish friend asked to come see the tree with her three children for a taste of the American holiday season she missed.
So it was that when Nakamura san knocked over the tree and broke our irreplaceable glass ornaments, we felt our Christmas was ruined, and we told her so. We cried. She cried. As much as we loved Nakamura san, we could not believe she had done this to us. We feared this tradition that connected us to our family in America could not be completed in its entirety without every last piece of ritual in place.
Not knowing what else to do, I slipped on my shoes and tearfully ran out the front door to the church bell tower down the street.
There I knelt down upon the painful gravel, folding my hands together into the traditional prayer shape like the paintings I had seen of Jesus praying. I went for every bit of extra effort and drama, pancaking my hands flat together and placing my elbows on the cement base of the tower. The church bells didn’t ring from the brown metal tower that afternoon, but I got a good look up inside as I knelt on the ground asking for God to please, oh please help fix this impossible situation, and let me know it was going to be okay.
After a few moments of the most desperate prayer a ten year old girl could utter, I felt something warm nuzzle up against my leg. Our dog, Tutsi, had found me. He sat still right next to me, wagging his tail as if to reassure me that all was not lost. I don’t know how Tutsi knew he needed to find me and rescue me in that moment, but it was what I needed to stand up and go home again, into the house where Nakamura san was finishing vacuuming up the flinders of what remained of the glass ornaments.
That miserable evening, Nakamura san fed us dinner and put us to bed, and fearfully awaited my parents’ return. Dad got home first, and was greeted by Nakamura san’s red swollen eyes. After listening to her tearful explanation of the calamity, he reassured her that all was fine. The next day, with both Mom and Dad’s promise that Christmas was not ruined and ornaments could be replaced next year, David and I walked together to Nakamura san’s house with a plate of Mom’s Christmas cookies and apologized to her. She remained our very favorite babysitter, who loved us despite our terrible treatment of her resulting from what could only have been an accident.
Just as Mom and Dad promised, Christmas did come to Mitaka that year. Dad read us The Night Before Christmas, sitting on the floor between David’s futon and mine. After he kissed us and tiptoed down the stairs, I strained my ears, listening for reindeer bells as they flew above Tokyo, picking out our home from among the millions of Japanese houses. I thought I heard their soft hoofs land gently on our flat metal roof, making a special delivery to two American children who wouldn’t be forgotten by Santa on the far side of the world.