Cards and Coal


Classes are winding down this week before the winter break starts. We make Christmas cookies out of construction paper and stickers; snowflakes for the windows, and cranberry chains that result in pricked fingers. I inform the adult students that chocolate “Christmas cake” is a Japanese invention and that Westerners wouldn’t even dream of eating KFC for Christmas dinner. They are completely shocked.

The children are excitable, giddy with thoughts of presents, vacation from torturous English class and – still –Kojima Yoshio. Zero attention span for vocabulary, yet their obsession with the hack pulses on. They hoot, “Sonna no kankei nee!” while I show them flashcards of presents, of Rudolph, of the man they call “Santa San.” They copy Kojima’s moves, bumping into tables and chortling. I made the mistake of calling Santa Claus “Santa no kankei Claus,” just to get their attention. It was, suffice to say, a hit – they said nothing else for the rest of class.

At the end of the day, we give the children Christmas tree-shaped cookies, but not before they tell us what the cookies are, in English. The proper answer is “Christmas tree cookie,” but either “Christmas tree” or “cookie” will get them a prize. The spirit of Christmas, everybody; language extortion. The children will do anything for refined sugar, even speak a foreign tongue. And I will now stop referring to them as “the children” – I am feeling a little bit too much like Bill Cosby for my own good.

There are cookies and chocolate candies on every desk, parties held at every school. I dragged Sean to one. We brought Beard Papa eclairs and ate our fill of sushi. Gil, my Australian coworker, drunkenly insisted on toasts at every turn. A middle aged woman I’d never met before turned to me and, to introduce herself, proudly declared: “I have a friend from Canada!” A tall, thin man in his early 70s informed the crowd that Sean was handsome and, from what we could tell, continued to deliver a lecture about the beauty of the Western face, made extra beautiful by the high relief of our angled noses. At least that’s what we hope he was saying; Sean couldn’t quite make it out, either.

Sometimes, there are gifts. I don’t know why I was surprised to receive several small tokens from the parents of my younger students; after all, when I was young, didn’t my parents press similar bundles into my hands each December to bring to my own teachers? “What will we get Mrs. Benzinger this year?” they would fret. Usually it was a package of chocolates, which my father would eye with a keen mixture of envy and regret.

An amazing card from Ren, one of my spunkiest 7 year olds:

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Ren hides from me in class, underneath chairs, giggling so hard he coughs. He refuses to give back flashcards, hiding them under his shirt or inside his desk. His mother told me that he used to hate English class but now enjoys it. His tiny little sister – her eyes bloated by enormous glasses – peers into the classroom as I teach, calling, “Eba! Eba sensei!” and waddles after me when class ends. This card is going on my refrigerator like woah.

Despite my intention to hang up the card, I’m not really a Christmas person; I’m an Atheist who is doubly uninspired by the religious aspects of Christmas and what feels like pointless secular celebrating. Yet, I am still capable of being touched by kindness and in return, I shop like a fiend. Sunday will mark my first trip back home and my beloved ones deserve Japanese goodies.

In Japan, Santa is one-dimensional; he gives presents to all, his dark side apparently unknown. We must give small gifts (foil-wrapped chocolates, stickers) to our young students but there are a few who deserve lumps of coal instead. I expressed this thought to one of the Japanese staff members and she was surprised. I took the chance that she was surprised by the coal idea rather than my dark attitude towards children and explained:

“In the West, the idea is that Santa only gives presents to good little boys and girls,” I said. “Of course, all children get gifts but you have to scare them into behaving if they want to get anything on Christmas day. So we tell them that Santa will only bring them coal if they don’t behave.”

“What is coal?”

“You know the black rocks that you use to make a fire? That’s coal.”

“So so so!”

“‘He’s making a list and checking it twice’,” I quoted atonally. “Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice … he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.'”

Recognition burst across her face like a star.

“Ehhhhhh??” she gasped. And just like that, years of previously meaningless Kurissumassu carols made sense.

I didn’t dare get into “Silent Night.”

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