Christmas in Kyoto

Christmas in Kyoto did not sound promising but the flight was cheap. Having spent the last several Christmases huddled around the small wooden tables of the German Weihnachtsmarken, hands wrapped tightly around steaming ceramic mugs of glühwein, we expected Japan to be a bit of a disappointment in terms of holiday spirit.

There would be no Christmas markets selling roasted sausages or over-sized steins of altbier. There would be no outdoor festival tables to provide the inevitable camaraderie that accompanies the mass consumption of mulled wine in freezing temperatures. Communication would be near impossible as both my wife Lauren and I spoke very little Japanese and could not read kanji or katakana.  

Nonetheless, one evening as we approached the bottom of our second bottle of wine, we decided Kyoto would make for a fine introduction to Japanese culture, with the added bonus of seeing drunken Japanese “salary men” stumbling around in Santa hats.

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Can There Be A Perfect Christmas?

by Connie Hand                                                   

When I lit the Christmas tree this evening, I sat down and gazed dreamily at its ribbons, lights, and decorations. Christmas is a magical season and the tree is part of that magic.

All of a sudden, I started to chuckle as I thought of our first Christmas  many years ago and the disaster of putting up our first fresh-cut tree.

That December 23rd, I knew putting up our tree in the evening would be perfect with a little planning. I got out the glistening new ornaments and ribbons. There were about eight strings of tiny white lights. The tree was on the porch cut just so that it would fit in the waiting tree stand. We were excited and looking forward to a lovely evening trimming our tree while listening to Christmas music and toasting our first Christmas together. It would be the beginning of making our own holiday traditions.

I got out two crystal flutes, an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne, a splurge of caviar, some crackers, and deluxe mixed nuts while my husband, Jeff carried in our perfect tree. He put the tree in the red stand and screwed the fasteners tightly. He stood back proudly and looked at me expectantly. As the smile on his face turned into a look of panic, I managed to squeak out “It’s crooked”. He insisted it was straight and then stood back to admire his handiwork. As he sheepishly turned to me, he admitted that it was very crooked. The tree came down but  recutting the trunk proved impossible so I suggested putting some paper coasters under a leg of the stand. We finally had a straight tree.

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Have a Happy Crappy Christmas Catalonia-Style

by Elyn Aviva


Bon Nadal and Feliç Any Nou! That’s Catalan for Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. 

It’s the holiday season in my home town, Girona, Catalonia, and things aren’t quite what you might expect. Yes, there are the familiar ho-ho-ho Santa Claus figures dangling from buildings, and three-foot-high Christmas trees with matching pink and purple ribbon decorations are lined up outside stores on the main shopping streets.

There are brilliant-colored lights strung across the avenues, and a glittering conical abstraction of a Christmas tree pulses on and off in the Plaza de Catalunya. Christmas carols (sometimes in English) echo through the halls, the beauty salons, and the restaurants, and carolers emote as they stroll down the pedestrian Rambla, songbooks in hand. Flame-red poinsettias are for sale in the market, and school-club fundraisers hawk chocolate bars and handmade knickknacks. And there’s the cheery Firanadal (Christmas Fair) offering artisanal goods, felt slippers, jewelry, plastic toys, and boxwood spoons.

Yes, all of this is vaguely familiar, even if gigantes (giant dancing king and queen figures), a marathon Nativity play (Els Pastorets), xuixus (pronounced “choochoos”: sugar dusted, cream-filled pastry rolls), and turrón (a kind of nougat) aren’t usual Christmas fare.

But you really know you’re in a foreign land when you seen the rows of squatting miniature figures—including SpongeBob SquarePants, flamenco dancers, Obama, Barça soccer star Messi, Queen Elizabeth II, and Death—their pants pulled down, a brown plop of poop deposited behind them, for sale for inclusion in Nativity scenes. Correction: the plop of poop behind Death is white, not brown. 

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Santa Claus is Coming to School

by B.J. Stolbov 

As the only (old) white man with a (long) white beard in my rural Filipino community of Northern Luzon, I get the exceedingly great pleasure every December of being Santa Claus.

I am a volunteer high school teacher. My first year here, I was asked to play Santa Claus at my high school’s Christmas assembly.  I excitedly volunteered.  Dressed in a red t-shirt and red jogging pants (the colors of our school), my black rubber swamp tromping boots (cleaned), a red cap with battery operated white blinking stars, my wire-rimmed glasses, and my long white beard, I, Santa Claus, appeared from the back of the stage of the school gymnasium to loud amplified blaring Christmas music. 

One thousand students went wild. This was my ultimate rock star Santa Claus moment. I strode across the stage waving, and then waded down into the roaring crowd.  Carrying a red bag filled with candy, I threw handfuls of candy everywhere.  It was almost a sugar frenzy riot. Everyone loves Santa Claus. No wonder he does this!  What a rush! I felt like Santa Claus. 

Next year, I was again invited to play Santa Claus.  But not only at my high school, where now, of course, everyone knew me; but also at an elementary school, where few, if any, of the kids knew me.  I cheerfully accepted.

I arrived at the elementary school dressed in regular clothes, with my Santa outfit hidden in my tightly folded red bag.  The principal of the school had made all the arrangements, agreeing with me that no one, except for a few teachers, would know that Santa Claus was coming to their school.  In the principal’s office, I changed into my Santa outfit. 

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Nine Mornings of Christmas

by B.J. Stolbov

I’m startled awake by every dog in the neighborhood going off, howling and barking. I’ve never heard such an ungodly uproar.  Nothing like this has happened here before.  It’s pitch black outside. There are no streetlights in this neighborhood; there are no streets, only dirt trails out there.  I roll over and look at my clock.  It’s 3:30AM.  I have no idea what’s going on.

There’s a light on in the kitchen and my host Mother is up.  She is boiling water, making herself a cup of tea. 

“What’s going on?”  I ask.

“Mass,” she answers. 


“Four o’clock mass.”  She sits down.  “The Catholics are going to church.”  She sips her tea.

“At four o’clock?” 

It’s nine days before Christmas. The Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia. Beginning this morning, December 16, the Christians will get up and go to early morning mass every day until Christmas. The Catholics have to wake up this early because their churches will be full and the mass will start exactly at 4AM.

My host Mother, sitting in her bathrobe, heating a larger pot of water for her bucket shower, is Protestant, a Methodist.  For the next nine days, she will attempt to attend morning services at the much more reasonable hour of 6AM. And she invites me.

I’ve been living in the Philippines for a year now. I’m a 61-year-old male and, among other various professions, I’m a writer.  Rather than retire, I’m way too young to retire and this writer doesn’t want to retire, I decided to join the Peace Corps.  Now, I’m living a fascinating life with a Filipino family and teaching high school English in one of the most remote and beautiful provinces in the Philippines.

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Nothing Says Christmas Like 130 Tubas

words + photos by Tom Adkinson


Walgreen’s may put up garland and tinsel the day after Halloween, but that and all the other premature signs of Christmas are a flop. Christmas doesn’t reign in my heart until I hear a sanctuary filled with the sound of 130 tubas.

It’s TUBACHRISTMAS, a time when people with big brass instruments converge to toot out deliriously delightful renditions of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and solemn and touching versions of “Silent Night.” The assembled spectators sing along. It’s like “Mitch Miller Meets John Philip Sousa.”

TUBACHRISTMAS for me is in Nashville, adding another layer to the city’s well-earned nickname of Music City.

The first TUBACHRISTMAS was in New York in 1974, and Nashville’s began in 1986. It echoed through several acoustically challenged venues before settling at First Baptist Church, where the sound is fine and the pews are comfortable 

After the first New York gig, a movement began, and you now can hear TUBACHRISTMAS performances across the nation. You’ll find a list at, you guessed it,

A spot check of states for 2010 reveals 12 TUBACHRISTMAS performances in New York, 10 in California and 21 in Texas. There are even enough tuba players in Idaho and North Dakota for three performances and in each state.

All of these performances are a tribute to a William Bell, born on Christmas Day 1902 and acknowledged as America’s premier tuba player and teacher of the 20th Century. He played for John Philip Sousa and Toscanini. The idea is to honor “all great artists/teachers whose legacy has given us high performance standards,” says the TUBACHRISTMAS website.

While anything but a church service, the Nashville TUBACHRISTMAS has an appropriate touch. The Baptists allow a collection to support a weekly meal for the homeless just down the street at Downtown Presbyterian Church, a venue where TUBACHRISTMAS once played.

Nashville’s TUBACHRISTMAS is December 14, but if I want to hear “Santa Wants a Tuba for Christmas” just one more time this year, I can hop a non-stop flight to Dallas for a Christmas Eve show.

 View photo gallery  


Tom Adkinson has worked in travel journalism and travel publicity for almost 40 years as a writer, editor and PR professional. His articles and photos have appeared in publications throughout the U.S. He is a Marco Polo member of the Society of American Travel Writers. 

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by Pete Thompson


When I was nine years old, my family went to the middle of nowhere in the middle of Texas where my dad grew up.  I had many aunts and uncles and their offspring who lived on several farms in the area; others had moved away to various other places like Dallas and such.  I did not know that this was going to be the last family Christmas gathering with my grandmother, who to me seemed older than hell.  Sorry, grandma, but I knew that word at nine plus a lot more and used them without remorse.  "Goddamn" was a hard one to master, being a Baptist, when I was scared to death of our preacher sending me to hell for even thinking it.   

We drove out to the farms in a new 1953 Ford, later to become my first car, to a wonderland of hard wood forests and smells of farm animals I had never experienced before.  I was growing up in the small town of Artesia, NM, where we moved 2 years after I was born in Roswell, NM.  In Artesia all the smells we had were mostly of the oil refinery located just east of town, one of our favorite play grounds if we didn't get caught.  Some believed it to be the smell of pure money and for some it was.  I preferred the farm smells to the refinery although now they say it's all the same, whoever the hell "they" are?

On Christmas Day, I was presented with a pellet rifle and a million lead pellets.  It was a single shot so I kept a mouth full of pellets for quick reloading.  Anybody who wanted me to talk to them had to wait until I spit all the spittle covered pellets out into my hand.  I also received enough firecrackers to wreak havoc on my small young world.  I could shoot everything that moved and blow up everything that didn't, which I commenced do immediately.

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