Last week I had my final lessons for the year and took it as an opportunity to teach the children the true meaning of Christmas and why we celebrate it.
Christmas in Japan has become a marketing ploy for KFC and basically an excuse to deck the country out in so many lights you can see it from space.
The children usually attend a Christmas party at the community hall where they play games and get presents. There are no Santas anywhere so children can't go sit on his knee and tell them what they want for Christmas personally. Instead they write letters to Santa, who they believe comes from Finland because that is where they address their letters to. Most of the children have no concept of what Christmas is actually celebrating.
When I asked them: what is Christmas, most said it was a day when they received presents - but they did not know why.
Some believed it was Santa's birthday, and an entire class of 8-year-olds said they believed it was a celebration of lights.
In my older classes, there were always one or two students who would recall it was Christ's birthday - and the others would eventually click on.
And so began my quest to teach the children the Christmas story.
Weeks earlier, I had found a Christmas story anime in Japanese so there would be no confusion in the meaning of Christmas.
It was about three girls visiting an illumination in Tokyo when they saw the nativity scene.
One asks: where's the baby and another remembers: they put the baby out on Christmas Day.
One of the girls receives a text message asking if they want to know the story of Christmas and they are transported back in time and into a field with the shepherds. And so it goes from there. I was a bit worried about teaching religion in school.
I knew the anime quoted scripture and I thought this could go one of two ways - I would get told off and not be able to show it beyond one class, or no-one would really care.
The first class I showed it to, the teacher was away and so the vice-principal sat in on the class.
I watched him as he watched this anime. Sometimes he would be staring intently at it, other times his eyes were closed but I could tell he was listening to what was being said. The children, too, seemed to be taking it all in.
I was contemplating not showing the anime to the next two classes when my vice-principal asked: "Was that your decision to show that anime?"
Great, now I am in trouble.
"Umm . . . yes it was," I replied, ready for a polite yet firm telling-off.
"It was a very good idea.
"Well done," he said.
"In Japan, there are so many religions - Buddhism, Shintoism, Christianity and so on.
"Everyone feels a connection to God in some way but we don't really teach children about it.
"It was really good for them to understand what Christmas actually is."
Needless to say I got the confidence to show the anime another four times in various classes around town.
For my younger classes I approached the topic using the Christmas tree. Why do we put a star at the top of the Christmas tree? Why do we sometimes put an angel at the top of the Christmas tree (which they had never seen or heard of)?
It was interesting to watch them consider the answer and realise they actually did not know why they did that. My second grade class were confident that it was to guide Santa to their houses but my first grade class admitted they did not know.
My first graders were really responsive, amazed to learn the reason for celebrating Christmas.
My second graders took a bit longer to click, but when they did, one student asked a question I was not entirely sure how to answer: "If Christmas is all about Jesus, then where does Santa come in?"
I really screwed up here.
Unsure how to answer this question, I ended up telling the student that Santa was a man from Holland who used to put presents in people's shoes when they left them outside. I ended up drawing a picture to illustrate what I was saying so the students could understand.
I know. I'm a terrible person.
To counter my screw-up and hopefully restore the children's belief in Santa (so the parents would not have the awkward moment of having to explain to their children that they are Santa), I told the students that in New Zealand we go to see Santa every year to tell him what we want, and that you can even ring him on 0800 HO HO HO. At the end of class, one of my girls came up to me and showed me a piece of paper where she had written Santa's number down. "Tania-sensei, is this the right number for Santa," she asked. Indeed, I screwed up.
Tania Butterfield is a former Express reporter teaching English at two schools in the Shiga prefecture of central Japan.
- The Marlborough Express