The best thing about Christmas is the champagne. And the gougères. Did I really say that?...well, it could be true.
Celebrating in a vacuum sometimes wears you down, and my first Christmas in Japan left me hollow. I was invited to a friend’s family house, where we shared the obligatory sweet split of “champagne” along with a yellow sponge, strawberry and whipped “cream” Christmas Cake on Christmas Eve. We had temakizushi that night (a make your own sushi affair), but I think Kentucky Fried Chicken is the “traditional” meal. Chicken instead of turkey, you know. Japanese Christmas is an amalgam of customs borrowed from several cultures. I’m not sure which country contributed December 24, instead of December 25, as the day for Christmas festivities, but there it is. I stayed the night, and in the morning woke up to a stocking on the end of the bed with one present inside. Is that German?
But the funny thing was that, over those two days, not one person uttered the words, “Merry Christmas.”
Other than the present, the next day dawned like any other, and I made my way home after breakfast. Stepping off the train, I walked through the busy station where the department stores were thronged with shoppers, business as usual on Christmas Day. Depressed, I trudged home, resentful of the empty display and shameless use of another culture’s holiday just to line the pockets of merchandisers. Admittedly, I was six months into my stay (a notorious low point in any overseas experience), but that was the day I began to realize I was culturally Christian by default, despite having been brought up an atheist.
The following year, Tadaaki and I had our Japanese wedding reception on December 17, though we weren’t officially married in Japan until Tadaaki filed the papers at the town office in January. Strangely, he didn’t need me to be there. As a foreigner, I was just an asterisk on his family registry. We also were married in an Episcopalian church in the U.S. and spent Christmas in California. All of a sudden, being in a church had taken on new meaning for me, so we attended Midnight Mass at Saints Peter and Paul Church on Washington Square. Afterwards, we gourged on some unforgettable fresh crab at a Chinese restaurant with fish tanks on Broadway. The restaurant staff was excited that Tadaaki wanted to eat the crab miso left on the shell, as most Americans wash it down the sink. Brooks Brothers’ blazer notwithstanding, Tadaaki was in his element sitting at the formica table, up to his elbows in crab shells. He still talks about that night and those crabs.
But subsequent Christmases in Japan paled in comparison. I tried to recreate my own family customs: stockings, copious presents, Christmas breakfast and a big midday meal. I also added a new one that my sister and I had initiated while living in San Francisco: friends for a Christmas Eve supper. We developed a “tradition” of inviting a small group of Tadaaki’s high school friends for Christmas Eve and then a mixed group of foreigners and their Japanese spouses for Christmas day. I did it more for the kids than anything else. Christopher was born a half year before our second Christmas in Japan as a married couple and Andrew 3 ½ years later. But in between, we lost a baby right before Christmas. Christmas quickly took on a feeling of groaning duty and I was losing heart for recreating what seemed to be made up traditions on my own. Unable to decide between which wedding date to celebrate, I gave up altogether on trying to commemorate either of our anniversaries, and in the end felt relieved. Christmas still took a monumental effort, as I tried to infuse some essential meaning into a day that had no cultural significance for my husband. Tadaaki had no frame of reference to understand the celebration, though to give him credit, he tried. It was nice to have friends come to dinner, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
After Matthew was born in December 1996, I knew I needed a break. And I also knew that I could no longer wait for Tadaaki to be able to once again travel with us. He had given up on accompanying us to the U.S. when Christopher was a baby. New business…his aging parents…there were any number of excuses, though to hear him tell it today, it’s because I made him carry my packages.
I found a farm in the Périgord region of France. The Dubois family run a Ferme Auberge (B&B) and raise geese for foie gras and confit. The family was depicted as friendly and welcoming and the farm food sounded enticing. Plus it was reasonable. And so we went. And that was the best Christmas I ever spent. The Dubois family accepted us as part of their extended family and we celebrated Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and even New Year with them and their numerous relatives and friends. There was a bulging crate of oysters outside the front door under the eves, bottles of Crémant de Limoux, fresh foie gras on warm toast, roast goose…a never-ending stream of lively conversation. And I didn’t have to cook. Matthew had his 1st birthday on the farm, while I got a huge infusion of energy and understanding into that long history of Southwest France Christmas traditions. Christmas in the Périgord gave me a renewed resolve to create my own farmhouse Christmas traditions in Japan.
When we returned home to Japan, Tadaaki was forelorn and accused us of abandoning him on Christmas. Flabbergasted (as he hadn’t seemed to care much before), I didn’t pay too much attention. But after that, Tadaaki became “Mr. Christmas,” and had more enthusiasm than any of us when it came to December 25th. So maybe the trip to France wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Though he still has never forgiven me. What can I say, he doesn’t let things go.
One of the customs I brought back from the Dordogne, was serving soup before the meal and cheese after. My first trip, it took a bit of getting used to, because the soup tended to fill me up and I barely had room for the cheese. But subsequent trips warmed me to the idea. Though I picked her brains for most of her recipes, I never did ask Danie Dubois how she made her various potages. Every creamy vegetable soup I make today is inspired by Lulu Peyraux’s recipe for Turnip Soup in Richard Olney’s Lulu’s Provençal Table. The basic concept is farm fresh vegetable + farm onions + butter + water. Oh, of course you need salt & pepper, and I like to add a dollop of cream and some chopped sautéed greens or chopped green thing from the garden (celery leaves, carrot tops, parsley, cilantro or chives…depending on the soup). Here’s the method: find the nicest looking vegetable at the farmers’ market and thin slice (turnip, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower or celery…). Thin slice ½ as much onion. Melt a knob of butter in a heavy cast iron pot over low heat. Covered, sweat the harder of the two vegetables (onion or the other) until no longer raw but not falling apart. Stir occasionally. Add the other vegetable and some salt and continue to sweat until the centers are cooked and the all vegetables start to melt a bit (about 20 to 40 minutes total from start to finish depending on how many vegetables you use). Add hot water to cover and simmer for about 20 minutes more for a big pot of soup. Scoop into a blender (only fill ½ way and be sure to fold a towel in a thick square to hold on to the rubber top—otherwise you’ll have hot soup spewing all over you and the kitchen). Pour soup into a large bowl as you cream it, then return to the empty stockpot. Reheat right before serving. Spoon in a dollop of farm cream or a drizzle of interesting oil and finish with a sprinkling of chopped green aromatics. I used pistachio oil and chopped ramp tops for my carrot soup this year. It was an unsual, but lovely combination.