Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Holidays From Hell

It is a paradox that one of the nicest things about moving from country to country is also one of the greatest headaches: holidays.

Now, I don't want to sound like a spoilsport, but holidays, for all that they are loads of fun, are also a big pain in the neck and, for some reason, seem to be viewed in our family as my own particular responsibility. For quite some time, I was dumb enough to play along with this, then something snapped. Last year, I left our Christmas tree up until Easter, when the rest of the household decided that they had better things to do than help me take it down. I called their bluff and they called mine, and by March, none of us could bear to go into what we began to call 'the Christmas room'. It helped that we were living in a large Victorian flat at the time and had more than one lounge. It also helped that the tree, for all that it posed a fire risk, smelled great and ended up burning beautifully in our wood-burning stove. But I can't say I was proud.

In Japan, the kids were eager to have it all. Japan has a whole lot of holidays and their friends at nursery school, then elementary school, celebrated them, so we had to as well; our kids stood out enough as it was, and we hardly wanted to give them another reason to be different.

"You didn't get to have shichi-go-san, did you?" one little girl said to our eldest daughter when she was five, "'cause you're a foreigner." Shichi-go-san is a traditional rite of passage celebrated in mid-November for little girls who are three and seven years old; boys usually only get to do it once, when they are five.

"Oh yes I did!" Eldest retorted, and the next day, she took in a photograph of her little blonde self fully kitted out in a kimono. This exchange was witnessed by two nursery teachers who gleefully reported that the little Japanese girl, upon being shown this, immediately said, "Gosh, you really are Japanese! I'm sorry I called you a foreigner!"

Getting Eldest dressed in that damn kimono took half an age, and making sure she didn't mess it up later when we took her out for the obligatory fancy meal and walk around the town, was a hassle of massive proportions. But her little friend's reaction made it all worth while, and even to this day, we love looking at the photographs.

We did them all. We cleaned the house for shogatsu, New Year's Day; on February the 3rd, we put on devil masks and chanted "Bad out, good in!" as we scattered beans out the door for setsubun, to mark the beginning of spring. On March the 3rd, we celebrated girls' day, on May the 5th we celebrated boys' day, and every summer we wrote out wishes on colored paper to decorate for Tanabata, the star festival. (I felt so ashamed of our family's wishes; they must have sounded so pathetically simple, laboriously written out, as they were, with the help of a dictionary.) We were let off the hook during Obon, the Buddhist summer festival during which everyone goes to visit the graves of their ancestors, but every September, before taiiku no hi, or 'sports day', we were forced to endure all-day sports events at our kids' nursery and elementary schools. Not realizing how important these were, we skipped the first one when Eldest was a year old and were roundly told off for it. If I could add up all the time I've sat on the hard ground and watched several hundred kids vault, jump rope, race around a ring, and run relays carrying potatoes on spoons, I'd have quite a tidy bit of time there. Wish I could, too.

Now, I freely admit that I can be lazy. And what I've described here may not sound like a lot. But when you factor in Valentines' Day (also celebrated in Japan, though women give men chocolate there), Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays, this is a hefty bunch of holidays to plan for and clean up after. And guess who got stuck with the brunt of the work?

When we moved to Scotland and the kids still wanted to celebrate Japanese holidays, I did the best I could. I put out our dolls on Girls' Day and nagged the kids to write messages for Tanabata too, though we never managed to find any bamboo to hang them on. On one Boys' Day, I made sushi, and I scrubbed the house from top to bottom for Shogatsu. After a while, I'll admit it: I gave up. And boy, it felt great.

So far, the holidays here have been easy-going affairs and I couldn't be more pleased. Seker Bayram, to mark the end of Ramadan fasting, was no big deal and I even got a free cake out of it. Kurban Bayram was the next holiday, and involved no work for me at all. Christmas went by in a flash -- our car's repairs ate up all our holiday money and spared me having to do anything with a Christmas tree -- and for New Year's, I popped corn, my husband had a beer, and hey, presto, 2009 had been shown in in style.

Then last week, it happened.

"Know what day it is today?" Acquired Daughter asked innocently. And I froze: January 25th -- Burns Night!

Scotland doesn't have a lot of holidays, but this is one that cannot be skipped: Robert Burns' birthday. Back in Scotland, we celebrated Burns' Night in style at my friend Dina's, with the traditional haggis, a sheep's stomach stuffed with offal, onions, oatmeal, and spices, and boiled until palatable (for those who are prepared to eat it, at least). We also feasted on the other indispensable Burns' Night components: mashed potatoes -- 'tatties' as they are called -- turnips, or 'neeps' -- and whiskey. My friend Dina loves holidays and never scrimps or wimps out on celebrations. She would have done splendidly in Japan.

Now Acquired Daughter does not ask for a lot. She finds our weird mixture of nationalities amusing and she puts up well with all of our family's weirdness. But she is 100% Scottish and with her in the family, there was no way we could not celebrate Burns' Night. And just you try describing haggis to a monolingual Turkish butcher sometime and tell me how well you manage.

We did the best we could. Acquired Daughter pretended that the kofta -- Turkish meatballs -- tasted just as good as haggis, and even I enjoyed the mashed potatoes, turnips, and package of Scottish shortbread.

But best of all, my husband cooked the whole thing.


a. fortis said...

Ha Ha! Bravo. I sympathize about being the one who has to "do" the holidays. Fortunately, we don't usually do any elaborate holiday celebrations, but honestly, being in charge of making sure all our close friends and family members get Christmas gifts, and that appropriate cards get sent out, is quite enough!!

debra said...

I could do the holiday, but the

Merry Monteleone said...

You are a brave, brave woman, Mary!

I thought I had something to complain about because I have to make my own birthday cake and dinner - I would skip this entirely except the kids like to celebrate everyone's birthday and I keep hearing it's good to teach them that everyone has 'their' day.

I'm going to ask a question, and feel free to tell me it's none of my business, but when did you acquire "acquired daughter"? I don't remember you using that phrase before you moved and thought there might be a story there... and as I love your stories....

Hope all is well and that you're having a great start to the new year.

Christina Farley said...

I loved your post with all of your experiences in Japan. Yeah, White Day is coming up here and we are already seeing ads for it to come after Valentines Day.


Mary Witzl said...

Sarah -- It's more than enough, really -- it's TOO much and I now decline to be the Holiday Person. This year, we did almost nothing and still had a fantastic Christmas. We threw some tinsel on our peace lily, popped corn, thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas parcel a kind friend sent us, and huddled around playing cards, wrapped up in blankets. It was great.

Debra -- Boy, do I second that emotion! There was a point when we stood in front of the butcher's case and my husband said, "What is in haggis exactly? We have oatmeal at home, right?" And I gave him a steely look and said, "If you want it, you make it." We got the kofta instead.

Merry -- (Me brave? No! Now if I'd actually made the haggis, I would definitely be worthy of such praise.)

Actually, I've been an idiot, but I've seen the light. From now on, if people want holidays, they can help me or do without. You'd be surprised how often they're prepared to do without.

Our Acquired Daughter showed up at our house a number of weeks before we got our job offers. There IS a story here, believe me, but I'll have to wait a few years to be able to tell it. But it will be good, I promise you. What is neat, though, is that we now have five people in this household, all born in different countries.

And baking your own birthday cake? Grrr. If I were there I'd make one for you. I'm not saying it would be any good, but I'd give it a shot anyway.

Christina -- They have White Day in Korea? I didn't know that!

Isn't White Day just the biggest rip-off? It's one of those 'holidays' that is nothing more than a chance for the chocolate companies to rake in more cash. And I don't even know why they need to do this with people like me around.

Kappa no He said...

My dad always teases me. Is it another holiday there? Is it Rock Day? But really, how amazing to be able to collect so many holidays!

Christina Farley said...

Yeah, they do have White Day here too. Maybe it's an North Asian thing? You're so right. Big money maker!

marshymallow said...

When i'm living with my parents, i usually get stuck with that. I (also) make all the cakes, decorate the house, cook all the meals, wrap all the presents (except my own), and set up the entertainment. Of course, mom is the one who does all the vacuuming, and washes the dishes, and keeps the house clean while i'm on my rampage. So it all works out pretty well.

Kim Ayres said...

I can't imagine Turkish meatballs could be any worse than Haggis. I have no idea how anyone can eat the stuff :)

Anne Spollen said...

Haggis -- when my kids found out about that, there was a rare silence at the dinner table.

And I know what you mean about the holidays -- I sent a Christmas card out to a couple I haven't seen in a decade, and they were elderly then. I actually wondered if they were still alive - so that wasn't exactly ho ho ho.

Whhen you think about it, so many of the traditions have gotten far too chore like.

Angela said...

Wow--you are superwoman! I can't imagine trying to keep up with multi cultural holidays--sometimes just the ones here in Canada drive me crazy.

This reminds me again of the wonderful opportunities your family has had to learn more about the world around them. I bet your kids will go on to do great things as a result of their experiences. I know it seems like lots of work, but I think you're an excellent mom!

Charles Gramlich said...

I like the idea of being off work for holidays but not the celebrating part. I like to rest on my vacations. I tend to be big on routine so holidays always throw that out of kilter.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- When you consider that I didn't even get into Respect for the Aged Day, Culture Day, or Golden Week -- or for that matter, St Patrick's Day, Labor Day or the 4th of July, the double holiday issue is pretty oppressive. Hmmm, Rock Day? As long as no labor is involved and we get off work, I'm all for it.

Christina -- Japan and Korea swap a lot of culture and customs and I'm betting White Day is a 'holiday' Korea inherited from Japan. As long as it sells stuff, it's bound to be a sure-fire success.

MM -- Now, I could really get into your kind of holiday -- the kind where you don't have to use the vacuum cleaner, wash the dishes, or keep the house clean! Up until very recently, when I put my foot down, my job seemed to be all or nothing. Your parents have done well with you; be sure to do the same with your own kids!

Kim -- Believe me, they were a vast improvement on haggis. Even if I weren't already prejudiced against haggis from the description, the smell alone would put me off it. I'm glad you're not a fan either!

Anne -- Poor wee things: they were probably in shock. The first time I saw our local butcher preparing it, I almost fainted. All that smelly offal, the veiny sheep's stomach. (Sorry: I'm making myself ill...)

There ought to be an easier way to prepare for a pleasant and meaningful holiday that everyone can remember and enjoy. Instead, so many of us work ourselves into a miserable, exhausted state. Next year, I'm going to aim for an even more relaxed Christmas.

Angela -- I once was a sort of do-it-fast-and-cheap superwoman, doing my best for all those holidays, but I've since thrown away my cape. Now I'm aiming for ever greater heights of ease and comfort.

As for my being an excellent mom, you are sweet to say this, but it really is hard. Right now I'd settle for being a pretty okay mom. Some days I'd almost settle for just getting to evening without yelling at anyone. In my more optimistic moments, I do tell myself that our girls will appreciate all of this some day!

Charles -- I like the build up to the holiday, then, after all the chaos is over, the return to a normal schedule. I'm a creature of habit myself and hate it when my world is turned upside down.

C.R. Evers said...

I find holiday seasons to be a pain in the rear too.

Wow! You have double the "fun"! Yikes! Maybe even triple.


Charlie said...

When I think about it, we don't really have that many major holidays in the U.S.--unless I've forgotten a few.

I am always amazed at how people mix up Memorial Day with Veteran's Day. On Memorial Day I've been thanked for being a veteran, and on Veteran's Day been told, "I'm sorry you died."

A great story as always, Mary, and about the Christmas tree: Did someone take it down or did you just move to another country?

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- Wherever we happen to go next, no way am I going to celebrate Bayram, Ramadan, or Attaturk's Birthday -- or so I tell myself now. Glad you're not a big holiday fan either.

Charlie -- In the U.K., the two holidays are celebrated on one day: Remembrance Sunday. This is chiefly for the people who have died fighting in wars, but it is also for veterans who are still alive.

My youngest daughter found a pair of secateurs and chopped the tree up into little bits which she then put into the fire. We were cold at the time and I'm guessing that helped. Then my husband sawed the rest into bits and we put them in the wood store. It was wonderful: all I had to do was vacuum up the needles. There was a point when I figured we'd probably have to pack the thing up and put it in storage with our other stuff. It was a little scary.

Nora MacFarlane said...

Hmm... haggis? You ARE brave!

Christy said...

I can barely handle the Christian and US holidays, so I'll be leaving Burns Day on the Scottish calendar. But I have to say, I've never met a sausage that I haven't liked. Perhaps the haggis at least is worth a shot.

Eryl Shields said...

Are all those Japanese holidays traditional, or are some of them recent inventions, there seems to be a hell of a lot of them?

I have decided that this year the only birthday cake I will bake is my own. I'm sick of being presented with a styrofoam-sponge while the boys get lovingly home-baked confections that I have slaved over.

As for Haggis I find a lot depends on who makes it: I once had one that was like offal flavoured pureed baked beans stuffed into a plastic sheath. But the one we had on Sunday was OK.

Kara said...

you actually ATE haggis? no wonder you left.

makes me think of that line from So I Married an Axe Murder about how all of Scottish cuisine is essentially based on a dare.

Mary Witzl said...

Nora -- But I'm not brave! I'd have been brave if I'd been dumb enough to make some myself -- or eat it. (Say...'MacFarlane' -- aren't you of Scots origin yourself?)

Christy -- Really, haggis is just sausage that is honest. Most of the time sausages are like laws: you don't want to see how they got made. Haggis is up-front and in-your-face about it and probably no more full of offal than the next sausage. So yes -- give it a try! (Easy for me to say, isn't it? I'm not going anywhere near the stuff.)

Eryl -- Those holidays are all traditional -- I actually left a few out, in fact. There are new ones, too, such as Midori no Hi (the old emperor's birthday, celebrated on April 29th) and the new emperor's birthday, conveniently close to Christmas. It's hard to keep up with them.

You have every right to bake yourself a decent cake and give your guys a Styrofoam sponge for a change! (Why call yourself a Kitchen Bitch if you can't act like one once in a while?)

Kara -- No way did I ever eat haggis! (In fact, maybe haggis was why my Scottish ancestors left the Old Country in the first place.) It was on offer on Burns' Night, but I only pretended to have a bite so my friend wouldn't feel hurt.

Robin said...

I think I might be going insane. (I heard that dubious "think?" - don't think I didn't.) I got all choked up over this post. The thought of you being so nice to the kids, and even dressing your daughter in a kimono makes me tearful. Even the thought of you watching your kids and all the little Japanese kids run around makes me tear up. That was either really touching, I'm mad as a hatter, or menopause has arrived a bit early.

Carole said...

I'm exhausted reading this post. This is a good reason to not travel. But I agree with Robin, that you ar an amazing mom.

adrienne said...

Whoa, your husband cooks?! You had my total sympathy right up 'til there ;)

Actually, I fantasize every year about doing that Christmas tree thing, but I know I'd lose out and have to live with the damn thing in the middle of the living room forever...

You are a trooper, taking on so many new traditions!

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- You're actually right: there is a lot here that is a little bittersweet. One of the reasons I insisted on the kimono thing was because even I, growing up among people so much like me culturally, felt out of it for many reasons. I didn't want this for our daughter. Even I get choked up, just thinking about that. And I definitely get choked up thinking about how much money we spent getting her all done up at the hairdresser's. (Hmm...maybe I'll try and get her to read this post.)

Carole -- I'm giving everybody the flip side of all the fun of living abroad. Most people never even consider the holidays -- I know I didn't.

Really, the only amazing thing about me was how long it took me to crack and say, "Not this year kids, unless you pitch in."

Adrienne -- Yes, my husband cooks! He also has been known to read this blog, so I'll have to tell you about the dishes thing some other time. (Hi honey!)

I threatened to leave our Christmas tree up half a dozen times. By the time you've virtually run as many family Christmases as I have, you too may reach my level of sloth.

Danette Haworth said...

Aack, Mary--too much work!

A couple of years ago, I forgot to do my Christmas cards and guess what? I didn't lose any friends. Now I never do cards.

Like Charles, I'm pretty content with my routine, and much as I love seeing the kids open their presents, I am glad when things return to normal.

Mary Witzl said...

You are singing my song there, Danette! I hope I haven't lost any friends this year myself; I still love the people who neglected to send me cards... Holidays should enrich our lives and help us relax, they should never tyrannize us and make us miserable.

Kit said...

We actually invented some more holidays when we came over here, to try and make up for the seasons being back to front. South Africa has plenty of public holidays but few traditions attached to them, besides Christmas and Easter. So we now have a festival at Midwinter in June, with a big bonfire and sparklers and all the winter lantern and stuff, a spring one in September with flowers, summer one wiht flags adn windmills, then autumn in March with pumpkins and harvest things. I just do the food and everybody joins in wihtthe making and decorating, so it's fun and only lasts the one day.

Half the fun of holidays and festivals is everybody joining in - I can see it must get a bit much if it is all put onto your shoulders.