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Saturday, Dec. 21, 2002

JAPAN LITE

You call that twig a Christmas tree?


The Japanese have adopted Christmas with great zeal, in the same manner they have adopted other Western things such as Snoopy and Disney. The holiday -- with glittery trees, sparkly lights and fairy-tale songs -- is irresistible to the Japanese. This, along with the "If it blinks I want it!" mentality, has made Christmas very popular.

It's equally surprising that the Japanese haven't made Christmas an official season, like spring or fall. After all, there are seasonal foods, seasonal colors and seasonal plants and decorations. The Christmas season is longer than the rainy season, spanning as much as three months in some parts of Western Japan, such as where I live.

This year, three houses on my island put up outdoor Christmas lights. This is because the Japanese find Christmas lights absolutely contagious. After all, pachinko parlors have known the appeal of blinking lights for decades. On my island, the most popular lights are the kind that flash in eight patterns.

The Christmas season starts in November, when trees all over the country are unceremoniously converted to Christianity. Potted evergreens are kidnapped from the garden and dressed with ornaments, and even wild bamboo may be subjected to a Santa doll shimmying up the stalk.

Although most Japanese boast of having a Christmas tree in their house, I have noticed some definite rules:

No large, untamed trees inside the house! Although drawings of pine trees are common on "shoji" doors, you really should not let the brutes inside the house. Thus the Japanese never have real Christmas trees inside. This is in line with Japan's "no houseplants" rule, which was adopted long ago because ikebana is so territorial. No competition please, no botanical beauty pageants.

Another reason you shouldn't have a real tree inside is that fake is de rigeur in Japan. To me, this is like the difference between looking at a turkey dinner or just the picture of a turkey dinner, but in Japan, there's a whole business of making imitation products. Fake nature abounds, such as plastic cherry blossoms, plastic bamboo and plastic grass. Who would want a real sap-dripping tree emitting a natural pine aroma? Besides, a real tree might drop its needles!

An indoor Christmas tree should be 30 to 40 cm high and come as a boxed set with all the trimmings, including extra lights on the side, to go. Just take it home, plug it in and wallah!: It's a 1,000-watt Christmas. Your little dynamo tree should have enough presence to double as a disco ball for a dance party.

Preferably the Christmas tree is encased in a plastic display box and is small enough to move from place to place with one hand. Place the tree on top of the refrigerator, or in some other out-of-the-way place.

If you choose to get a slightly bigger tree, say 40 to 50 cm, and decorate it yourself, as one of my neighbors has, then you can decorate in the "free style." It seems they used anything as a Christmas tree ornament, even ramen noodles. Garlands were applied vertically, and the lights lit up just one portion of the tree.

To apply "icicles" or the silvery Christmas "rain," try this method. First stand a certain distance from the tree. Take a glob of icicles in your hand and roll them in your palms as if you were making mochi. After you have made a tight ball of the stuff, adopt a pitcher's stance and throw! Where ever the icicles land on the tree is where they should stay.

If your tree lists to one side, no problem. If it looks a little drunk, it's OK. After all, the Christmas tree is just an imitation of nature.

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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