So this is Christmas?

Tom Matsuda

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I have always had ambivalent feelings towards Christmas. On the one hand, I recognise it as an occasion to spend time with your loved ones and create memories together. In a world where we can’t stop moving, it is important to stop and share our time with one another. In today’s age, we have learnt to optimise our time in order to be our most productive selves. However, most often this means that the time we spend with our loved ones gets relegated to the bottom of our lengthy to-do-list.

Whether it be eating together, watching TV together or even just relaxing together, our modern world has carved out a chasm between the individual and communities such as family or close friends.

As a holiday, Christmas is arguably a remnant of times gone past when our clocks seemed to go just a bit slower than the digital clock faces of our Apple Watches. A time designated solely to spend with your loved ones seems like the perfect antidote to the burnouts that our current economy produces. However, as with all things capitalism touches, Christmas has become truly consumerist.

I cannot remember a Christmas occasion when I didn’t stress over what to buy, who to spend it with and where. Today, consumerism and the media have formed a two pronged attack on what our image of Christmas should be. And thanks to that, it has become one of the more stressful times of the year and very far from its original intention.

The projection the media puts on us is that we should spend it with our biological family, buy increasingly expensive presents for each other and attend every Christmas party we can. Obligation rather than well wishes has become the byword for our current Christmases.

We are obligated to spend our biological family no matter our personal opinion on them, to ensure that nobody spends the holidays alone. This has dramatically backfired for me in the past. Moreover, as a single child with divorced parents I have often been made to make choice as to who I spend my time with. Being forced to make such uncomfortable decisions as a child was something that filled me with dread every time we entered the festive period.

Also, we are obligated to buy presents for each other and often for people we don’t know. This leads to an enormous amount of waste as items are returned or thrown away, something that arguably does not show our environment a lot of love. Whilst I am not against a gift giving culture, I believe it should be reserved for the ones in our lives we know well rather than far flung family members or acquaintances. In that way, we can give truly personalised presents instead of trawling Amazon’s recommendations for Christmas presents for co-workers.

Lastly, we are also increasingly socially obligated to spend our time with people in contexts which may not suit us. Work or school parties and family reunions oblige us to spend time with people that we either do not know or sometimes only ever see once a year. Whilst these occasions can be fun and bring people together, many of us would rather have such an event with the people we see and cherish on a daily basis. It’s always been ironic to me that during such a period dedicated to spending time with your loved ones, that we sometimes barely see them.

However, this year during my year abroad in Japan, I have managed to escape such obligations and the stress that comes along with them. In a country where Christmas is considered a foreign tradition, I was not expected to do anything. Instead, I was able to freely chose without the constraints of obligation who to spend it.

In the end, I decided to be with my Japanese family who I rarely see. However, as I had free will over my decision, it didn’t feel forced. In fact, spending it with them making sukiyaki (sliced beef that is cooked in a hot pot) and chatting I noticed that in some ways this felt more traditionally Christmas than the times I have spent it in the UK. I was spending it with family in a non-forced way and creating memories that will more likely stick in my head way more than the atypical Christmas at home.

Moreover, gift giving is not usual in Japan and I did not have to stress over what to buy for my grandparents who are from a completely different generation from me and may have different ideas of what constitutes a present.

Furthermore, I was not forced into any obligated social gathering. The ones I attended were ones with people who I really wanted to spend the festive period with. They felt like gatherings of friends rather than socially obligated meetings of people whom one barely knows. It was these times, despite their context of being in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, when I felt most festive.

Christmas in a non-Christian country has taught me these things. Obligation and consumerism has sucked the festive cheer out of western Christmas traditions. It has led me to associate Christmas with the very modern phenomenon of stress. We are supposed to rest in the holiday period, instead we find ourselves doing the exact opposite.

However, this was not the case in a country bereft of Christmas obligation. I finally found myself free from projected ideas of what Christmas should be. I could finally enjoy myself during the holiday period after years of apathy. Somehow in Japan, I was able to find my Christmas cheer once again.

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British-Japanese writer from London. Words in OneZero, Human Parts.

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