JAPANESE CHRISTMAS

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I was asked recently to write something about Japanese Christmas. I have no idea what mental images or (pre)conceptions you may have of this curious time in Japan, but if I think back on those first Christmases and compare them with how I feel now, I realize that I have become acclimatized almost entirely to what I used to find quite creepy. For the Japanese Christmas, in some ways, from certain angles, is quite creepy.

 

I could write reams on my wonderful remembrances of innocent childhood Christmases, of the fierce, wondrous magic; the school nativity plays; the Christingle kid’s services at our local church with their candles, angels, and clove-studded oranges; of the impossibly exciting thrill of Father Christmas and Christmas eve, and of snow, and presents under the sparkling tree, but I know that many of you reading this will have had very similar experiences, and that even a short invocation of those things will be enough to make you glassy-eyed and nostalgic.

 

That Japan, a country whose Christians constitute less than 1% of the population, should so fully embrace an entirely Western tradition that has no connection whatsoever to its own culture might seem surprising. But just like the exhortations of those ennervating shopping malls in the west, come November, the carols and Christmas songs are blasted out on loop (sung in English, a language that the majority of the population does not understand), the decorations, the illuminations, just as fancy; there are elaborately made, expensive wreaths on practically every door in my neighbourhood, along with lit-up, flashing, reindeer and Santas in people’s front gardens; baubles, tinsel, Christmas trees, cakes (the strawberry ones, of the American ‘shortcake’ variety), and chicken (KFC); children just as thrilled as their US or British counterparts at the thought of what presents they are about to receive from Santa Claus (parents going along with the fantasy just the way ours did); the whole twinkling, red-nosed  nine yards. While for Japanese Christians, who celebrate the occasion more modestly with services at the various churches dotted across the landscape, Christmas is naturally a profoundly important religious festival, for the rest of the nation, it is a celebration, essentially, of a ready-imported atmosphere; a feeling, a mood, a fully realized, set-up fantasy with a no-strings attached guarantee of fun and magic;  entirely foreign, exotic even, and yet a part, now, undeniably, of the culture.

What I used to find bizarre, disconcerting, unnerving, and even at times deeply infuriating (though that was probably much more to do with my own issues that I had to deal with at the time) was the fact that, like the ‘Christian’ weddings that the majority of Japanese couples have (with unconsecrated  ‘chapels’ at what I call the ‘wedding factories’ – banquet centres with many couples getting married at the same time on the same day, brides going down escalators, others going up them, and then disappearing behind closed doors to have their hair and make up done by professional staff, and ‘priests’, who more often than not have no religious background –  no liturgical credentials are required, just the right costume and look (Caucasian) – I could work here part time as a wedding priest probably if I really looked into it); the fact that, like the equally celebrated Halloween and Valentine’s Day, I felt that there were literally NO cultural foundations for these festivities: just something strangely absorbed, something existing purely for commerce, used to really disturb me. Just decoration. Pure surface. As though British people were to begin celebrating the ancestral ghost homecomings of the O-Bon summer festivals, start dancing to centuries old Japanese music, clad in summer kimono, feasting on grilled squid, and banging taiko drums clad in happi coats and hachimaki headbands just because it looked cute and did wonders for sellers of sake; the whole orientalist, Katy Perry geisha drag.  Initially during those first two Christmases or so, I just couldn’t get my head round it all. Notwithstanding the post-war ‘Americanization’ of Japan and the capitalist hegemony of western culture worldwide, whose influence I realize cannot be underestimated, the fact that these imported traditions should so embraced so fully and wholeheartedly (and often unthinkingly) by the Japanese was something I used to find unfathomable in those early days. I almost felt offended, as if it were my culture that were being apportioned (and often ‘incorrectly’:  I will never forget the mixed-symbol monstrosity of a Santa hanging from a crucifix in one (hilariously) messed up window display).

 

To get further to the bottom of this complex topic though, I was talking about religion yesterday with some of the more thoughtful and analytical Japanese English teachers at my school, and they found my way of looking at all this quite interesting, baffled slightly by my curious dismay at what I saw as the total disregard of the significance of the crucifix under which these couples were sharing their nuptial vows (can you imagine people having ‘themed’ Islamic, Hindu or Jewish weddings purely for the ‘feel’, in Europe or America?) But for many Japanese, they said, religion is a fluid thing, less fixed and fixated on adherence to one faith to the exclusion of all others. ‘We can believe in it all at the same time’.

 

I found this interesting. Japan, I would say, on the whole, is about as religious as the UK (and in case you are wondering, I am fully agnostic myself, ‘not being able to say for sure’ the only logical conclusion I can come to), in the sense that people only really go to places of worship for weddings, funerals and the new year. The society as whole is undeniably very secular and permissive, and yet there are always fortune tellers on city corners and tucked away inside strange corners of department stores, sitting there patiently even in the bitterest chills of winter to read palms and predict the future; and a belief in the supernatural, or the soul existing in all things, is very prevalent in this culture (no one will have an office on the fourth floor of a building, for example, as it signifies death), meaning that many Japanese people can see no inherent conflicts or contradictions in moving from a Shinto wedding, to a Buddhist funeral or a Christian wedding; it is just a transference of symbols, for which they have equal respect. There is an intriguingly fluid inclusivity here that I find strangely beautiful in some ways, though I will still never be able to quite get over, personally, that first wedding, – the hallelujahs, the sacred music, the ave marias piped in through state of the art speakers concealed somewhere within those white, plastic walls…..I was both appalled and electrified by its post-modernness, its semantically disorientating, gleaming allure.

 

And like that immaculately overproduced occasion, Christmas here has more the illuminated, uncomfortably smiling face of Mickey and Minnie in neon at a Tokyo Disneyland parade (my idea of hell). What was once a solemn religious festival, centuries ago, far far away on distant shores, is now a dazzling, sprightly simulacrum: Christmas at its most frolicsome, geared up heights; cheerful and happy, especially if you are a kid, but, to be honest, as a thinking adult, it can bring you down. When Helen came to Japan the first time, I remember she was quite floored and depleted by this feeling, this dark hole we could both feel, from our own cultural perspectives, at the centre of all this empty, commercialized bedazzlement. I can see us going down the escalators in Sakuragicho, Yokohama, the centre of Christmas festivities in this area (they have an amazing, automatic, singing tree that can make me cry in the centre of Queen’s Square); the twittering, bleating, high pitched voices urging us to celebrate the bargains, the oppressively vacuous joy leaving us like strange, disoriented husks, some very potent darkness rising up from under it all like the seismological terrors that do lurk, morbidly, underneath the strata; beneath these shallowly constructed streets and the glib, electrifying frivolity:  we both felt exhausted. And we only came back to life again in the much more real-seeming nearby China Town (the biggest in Asia), where we settled down at one of the many excellent restaurants there to have revivifying treats of hot tea, dumplings and Chinese soup. I can remember these feelings perfectly – they feel like pleasant memories, but I can also feel the desolation of that time, connected also to the fact, that in certain ways, I was lost, and didn’t entirely know what I was doing here. I had culture shock, yes, but the foreignness was magnified threefold when it pertained to something I knew so well personally;  a Christmas that felt, despite, or because of all the red and the gold, the lights and the music, overwhelmingly empty and alien.

 

 

 

 

 

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Now I see it all slightly differently. Though I still find it ultimately weird that a culture so different from Europe of America should celebrate Christmas purely for its atmosphere (in that case, let’s start a national celebration of diwali because I love those candles), I wonder whether, all in all, it is really actually different from where I am from. The kids feel the magic just as keenly, of that I am sure as I teach them and hear their stories; businesses prosper just as happily – strawberry growers must do an absolutely roaring trade at this time of year, though quite how and where they grow them out of season I wouldn’t like to conjecture. Restaurants do a roaring trade, as so do all the shops, and though the core of the Japanese celebration is very different – Christmas Eve is seen more as a romantic occasion when couples hold hands and gaze out longingly at illuminations (inspired by characters doing the very same in endless TV dramas), book ‘love hotels’ for secret trysts, and every table at the fanciest restaurants will be fully reserved, ultimately, illuminations are illuminations, gift wrap is gift wrap, and Rudolph is Rudolph. And what does any of all that have to do with the reputed birth date of Jesus Christ in any case?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We were invited to an English handbell concert a couple of weeks ago, much of it Christmas themed, and though I was a tiny bit skeptical going in, to a brand new concert hall facility in the dreadful suburban zone of Totsuka, I have to say that it was extremely charming. The high ringing, ice-conjuring clarity of the Japanese ladies’ music, their entirely convincing renderings of all the most famous carols, the Skater’s Waltz, and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town brought tears to the eyes of this sentimental old fool, and how could it not? It was lovely. I was taken back, almost, to the frosts of my irreplaceable youth.

And undoubtedly I will also be strolling myself, romantically, down through the Marounouchi illuminations with the Duncan sometime in the coming weeks, and then to some pub or restaurant or other down the Ginza, and I can tell you now in advance, that we will both be loving it. And unironically. We have absorbed it. We like it for what it is. Tokyo, at Christmastime, when it is all lit up, bright, and pika-pika, lights flashing all starry eyed as characters in an anime cartoon, can be extraordinarily, shimmeringly seductive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fundamentally, then, I would say that Japanese Christmas, in my personal experience and opinion (I realize that this very subjective piece does not touch sufficiently on historical precedents and so on, sorry), has no fundaments, not really, despite the first recorded celebration of Christmas going back to the sixteenth century (and the fact that Christ is believed by certain Christians here to have not been crucified but to have settled, and married in Japan – he is supposedly buried on the island of Herai in the north of the country), but it is lovely, in many ways I suppose, all the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is most fascinating, for me though, is what happens on December 25th, Christmas day itself.

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In England, my memories are not just of Christmas Eve – when I would find the magical excitement almost unbearable in its intensity and would be told off by my parents and ordered to try and calm down –  but also of Christmas Day, Boxing Day, of an entire week of celebrations, where the world ground gratefully to a stop and the days bled into themselves in a pleasant stodge of family time and country walks to get some necessary fresh air into those cooped up lungs; the time extending itself into the New Year, the decorations often not being taken down, traditionally, until January 6th, the day of Epiphany .

 

The change from the 24th to the 25th in Japan, by contrast, is astonishing. One minute it’s a western winter wonderland, the next it is instant, pure Nippon. You wake up on Christmas Day itself, and all traces of Christmas have disappeared, been whisked away, taken down over night, mere afterthoughts. Suddenly, as if by magic, gone are those green and red holly-wreaths, and in their place are the traditional door decorations of O-Shogatsu, the Japanese New Year – bamboo, bitter oranges, pine – ancient symbols of purity and rebirth, the beginning of a period of long practiced traditions that continue through to the first week of January, when millions descend on Kamakura temples to pray for health and good fortune, koto music fills the department stores, and everything is instantly immediately, potently Japanese. The starkly crystalline mountain air, the profound and evocative white of the indigenous, animist, Shinto priests; the rites of purification. It is at this time, when the starry skies where I live are filled with the sounds of monks chanting and intoning bells, of families going for walks, and kids excitedly taking their white paper O-Mikuji good luck charms from trees, when all the shops shut down for the family gatherings and the traditional foods eaten at this time such as toshikoshi soba and O-sechi-ryori –  sweet, expensive treats bought in black, lacquered bento boxes to give mom a rest – it is at this time that I feel at once more outside of Japanese life – these are not my traditions –  but simultaneously more involved. It feels natural. Part of the country’s history. The family rituals of drunken togetherness, slobbing around doing nothing for a few days are in fact much more reminiscent of our Christmas and Holiday Season, and we have been invited to several wonderful New Year gatherings, had the unusual foods (sweet chestnut paste; black beans and shrimp, each with its own significance, some really magnificent spreads put on by our Japanese family); it is at this, more genuine, and relaxing time that the flimsy, glitzy Japanese Christmas fades very quickly from memory and is revealed, quite clearly, for what it is: fun, jolly;  a wintery novelty: a whimsical, but ultimately rootless, simulation.

45 Comments

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45 responses to “JAPANESE CHRISTMAS

  1. Liz K

    Beautiful writing as always. I still remember being puzzled by the Ranma 1/2 Christmas episode and asking what the heck, wasn’t Japan mostly no-Christian? These days I have a better (although still very foreign) grasp of Japanese culture. I get a kick out of their enthusiasm for a good party and the Anime Christmas specials get equal air time with the true classics.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • Thanks you for reading, and I want to hear more about yours. Are you still in Japan? If so, where?

      • Liz K

        No, not in Japan but have been very close to several Japanese-American families in my life (and hosted several Japanese exchange students as a kid) and have lots of otaku friends.
        My experiences have been through wacky interactions with friends and their families as well as pop culture. I have always wanted to travel to Japan but living there must be tough for an outsider.

      • Tough but also curiously easy, and in some ways also easier in your own country. I was always a dreamer, and here you can live in a dream.

  2. Lynley

    Thankyou for your interesting, yet rather disturbing description. A few weeks ago you commented that most of us would probably never visit Japan, and it had me thinking. I’ve travelled a lot through a fair bit of Asia, yet there’s something about Japan that repels me. It’s fascinating, surely, and the traditional culture and landscape I find beautiful. But it’s the ‘fake emotion’ I find disturbing. Almost like it’s so repressed it goes in the opposite direction of being super engaged, with emotions almost fetishized. Like the articles I’ve read about the men with life size dolls or pillows as girlfriends (just change the pillowslip to change her clothes, or if you ‘soil’ her too much :-/) There’s just something inside me that quietly screams ‘nooooooo’!
    I just don’t understand it. I’m very blunt, and have a deep fascination for the human condition, the primal, basic way we express and interact, and I feel there’s something somewhat out of alignment in this type of culture. I’m sure it’s evident everywhere to some degree, I just find that the Japanese degree a tad disturbing.
    I will get there eventually to see for myself, I just know I will need to psyche myself up for it 🙂

    • I mean this is only my own personal interpretation, but I doggedly stick to my own perceptions and feelings, while of course trying hard as possible to see things as wide angle as possible. And Japan IS disturbing in some ways, but as I always counteract, the repressed side you talk about, the fake emotion and so on, is only in certain situations, not all, and it makes the society run so smoothly. The ego is sacrificed for the whole. In America it is the opposite, the ego screaming for attention (‘I wanna be SOMEBODY! NOT A NOBODY!’, and this is equally fucked up and damaging in my view). Somehow, a mix of both would be more natural and healthy, but then I would hate a homogenized world. Japan is maddeningly fascinating just as it is.

    • Oh, and there are PLENTY of blunt and direct Japanese, I can tell you. You honestly can’t imagine how it works until you are here. The cringing politeness, which is, in its way, fake, is only one layer; many people are natural and honest in a way that is very appealing.

  3. I love your post and the comments to it. It was so descriptive and beautifully written that it made me feel as if I had actually experienced Christmas in Japan. And I got your comparisons between Japanese Christmas and American Christmas. Thank you for giving us this opportunity of visualizing Japan through your eyes and experiences..

  4. Regarding the Santa on a cross, did you actually see it or just hear about it?

  5. Katherine

    Fascinating! I’ve been meaning to comment ever since your Java posts, but been busy and the moments passed. Have been very much enjoying reading all the same. There’s something about Christmas that makes me so emotional, brings out the romantic/optimist in me, but can also make the sad things in the world overwhelming.. And capitalism particularly cold. It’s A Wonderful Life can choke me up any time of year! I’m not religious, but Christmas is one of those things deeply ingrained since childhood, I can imagine a certain understanding of the Japanese’ transience between religions though as the language and symbolism can be effecting without believing in the whole thing, and it’s the unifying element that gets me, though that does sound hard to get your head around! Japan sounds amazing.

    • It really is, and I am glad that you get what I am saying about it. The push and the pull; the seeming vacuous weirdness, the beauty.

      • Katherine

        Yes, that came out in a muddle – such a stimulating read! Such a wild journey I cannot begin to get my head around, but enchanting and wonderful to read. How being somewhere else can make the naturalised so visible. You really capture something of this beautiful alien aura of Japan at Christmas time. Wow!

      • Katherine

        This is somewhat off topic, but I remember seeing you mention Eyes Wide Shut recently and though I’d never seen it, with the nights so dark I had a feeling there would be some great dressed up evening scenes in it, and whilst I found it flawed I was not disappointed – but also in pretty much every shot surely there is Christmas decoration, really lovely coloured lights.

        Also, did you like Lost In Translation? I just wonder from your experiences, I’m sure it doesn’t really reflect, but it is another visual feast and I have always loved it. Now I just want to go to Tokyo!

  6. You described this almost exactly as I imagined it. A sort of, borrowed holiday that ultimately has no real relevance. Surprising that, as you say, almost overnight, all traces of Christmas joy and cheer are removed. I wonder why the haste?

    I got a little goosebumpy reading your bit “the world ground gratefully to a stop and the days bled into themselves” – it’s so true! The rhythm of school and knowing what day of the week it was truly gets mixed up around Christmas and in a pleasant way, it feels good, as if, we were not meant to live to a Monday-Friday routine…

    Neil you’re writing is excellent. Do write a book some day!

      • and ODOU is fantastic by the way. I keep it in my bag all the time and keep showing it to people. I just haven’t finished reading it all yet, nor properly got back to you to, but I am very proud to have been part of that first issue! Totally unbullshitty and uncompromised (the last piece, the erotic longing in that one……brilliant!) Something pure about it all and brilliant.

      • Hehe, someday 🙂 Till then you could Read Hokkaido Highway Blues. I remember reading it at 14 and being mesmerized of a westerner’s impression of Japan – through a hitchhiking lens.

        I’m so glad you’re happy with the magazine. Honestly, it wouldn’t be what it is without yourself. You’re entered into a few categories for the Jasmine Awards 2014 😉 will keep you posted on that when I know more.

        Oh and I’ll tell Paul you liked his erotic longing article – that’s twice he’s been complimented now lol 🙂

      • Am I seriously entered into the Jasmine Awards?!

  7. Rafael

    Riveting! Exhausting! So you go from Caron’s Nuit de Noel to Royal Bain de Champagne! From Mulled wine to Veuve Cliquot! Extraordinary! Do they play “Babes in Toyland” and “Fascinaion” everywhere or are the tunes more religious? I have a friend who’s an engineer and also gay, therefore “creative”, and every year he does a topiary reindeer he’s rigged up and it “poops” big colored lights! It’s the best!

    • Fascination, yes, it’s all here, and though the reindeers I have seen are not usually pooping, they are certainly pretty OTT. Where I live there has been a bit of keeping up with the Suzukis with people trying to outdo each other in the Santa stakes: each year the illuminations get more fancy. I kind of like it.

  8. Utterly wonderful writing again, really looking forward to my copy of ODOU arriving. I remember it all so vividly, that emotional reaction to the festive ‘void’ and the escape to Chinatown. It’s so interesting that Christmas in Japan was one of the most alienating and ‘foreign’ things about it for me on that first trip, that comfort was found in what was, as you so rightly say, natural, even if it was natural to a culture that I had no affinity with previously.

    • Well, as I started writing it that knackered, cavernous feeling came back to me (for some reason escalators feature very prominently in my reminiscences), and I tried to capture it in words. I remember we felt quite enfeebled by it, and you were actually a bit fragile and weirded out. I had to try and think about how it felt, because now it feels quite sweet and natural. I am interested in how that gap has closed and how I have simply become accustomed to Japanese Christmas. It’s possible, even, that I have become so used to this ‘lighter’, voided Christmas that the next time I try a real English one it might just feel like too much, too much of a big deal. For the time being, I’ll just take the X-mas Lite. And even though we usually celebrate properly, the two gaijin alone in their house with their turkey and champagne and festive music and lights, this year we can’t be bothered. This year : Christmas in Kyoto.

  9. ninakane1

    Fascinating writing. I love this.

  10. Martha

    The Santa on the crucifix is priceless, and probably more honest than the westernized religious-yet-commercial celebration of Christmas. And Colonel Sanders as Santa! The image is beautiful. Thank the Colonel for fried chicken! I can almost feel the surreal quality of it all. Every year in the U.S., and perhaps this happens in the U.K. and elsewhere as well, the promotions and advertisements for Christmas begin just a little earlier than the previous year. Eventually we’ll be at the beach on a day in July, scrolling through our devices and tablets for the best Christmas sales/deals. I actually love Christmas despite the crass commercialism because there are aspects that are really enjoyable such as the lights and dressed up evergreens, the smell of balsam fir and of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamon, ginger, vanilla, etc. Thanks for another wonderful post.

  11. emmawoolf

    I agree N – your post is utterly fascinating. Your description of singing trees and piped messages really did remind me of one of the scenes in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Surely the mantra “honour thy consumer” was never truer here? (By contrast, Japanese New Year sounds an absolute delight). x

  12. This is fascinating, Neil! My mother has actually covered the house in Santas, which stick around all year round. When I pointed out that this was inappropriate in July, she waved me off and asked me what I had against white people’s Buddha: Fat, jolly, kids sitting on his knee and bright red.

  13. Peter's Pieces

    I’m enjoying your posts immensely – discovered the blog this morning, trawling the ‘net for information about incense inspired perfumes. As soon as I saw a few responses about rite-specific scent, I knew I was somewhere special. There’s something essentially Catholic (Anglo or not, certainly High Church) about your writing (I’m basing this on the few posts I’ve read, excuse me) – in so far as they’re very good at creating a sacramental reading of reality. The form of a thing goes beyond itself, a gesture of longing for hopeful fulfillment. I suppose that’s built into the medium of scent too, the way it’s abstract but present, and captured in language here on your blog. Thanks for writing.

    • No, thank you for this unbelievable comment. I am fascinated by the idea of being Catholic – somehow it rings true. I feel very flattered. I think ultimately that this blog is at least as much about language as it is about scent, so you have bored to the centre of it all. Arigato.

  14. Our comment thread ended so I couldn’t reply. Check your email accounts for what’s going on/apology!

  15. Kusa

    Can’t wait to hear about Christmas in Kyoto.

  16. Dearest Ginza
    Fascinating.
    But then again it’s all Saturnalia really (and whatever was before that too).
    At root what humans want to do is expend, gorge and flop.
    And it must be said we’re really rather good at it.
    Tremendous words as ever.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  17. Nocturnes

    The Christmas that I have been exposed to all of my life has been replete with traditions that stem, in actuality, from pagan rituals. There are Christians who believe that, based on the information in the Bible, Christ was not even born in the winter, but rather in the fall. In an attempt to convert non-Christians/pagans, early Christians enticed them by including the pagan rituals and somehow incorporating them into Christian traditions, including those involved in Winter Solstice (thus Christ’s date of birth reportedly changed to coincide with Winter Solstice)…. I abhor the commercialism and materialism and all the nonsense ….right after Halloween the Christmas lights, holiday sales, etc begin showing up and we are innundated with images/sounds of Christmas…..I like the idea of tea, dumplings and soup and quiet contemplation that you and Helen experienced in Chinatown…..I would have enjoyed such a serene celebration…..as I have become older I have become less and less engaged in the frivolity and “winter novelty” as you put it…..I try to keep low key about the holiday and rather than focus on the religious aspect of it I try to focus on expanding my sense of spirituality……and this can be done throughout the year…not just on Christmas!

  18. Tora

    What a brilliant piece of writing, Neil!! I guffawed when you said they had crucified Santa! Your photos are great, and I can get the feel of what you are talking about. I totally understand your initial reaction of dismay, and ‘hey! This is our Holiday!’ Like blue jeans and coca cola, some things are too fun not to climb on board. I wish you a magical holiday, which if memory serves me right, you will be celebrating with Duncan here in our Sunshine state. Thanks for this westerner’s perspective on Japanese Christmas.

  19. Fabulous piece Neil, fabulous. I like the fact that the Japanese have embraced the festive aspects of the holiday, and by proxy the consumption aspect also; capitalism in the states here could give them a run for the money though, the holiday is literally all about buying more and more and more.
    I guess I enjoy the fact that it is truly just a holiday based on the celebrations from time immemorial of the winter solstice; Saturnalia, Mithra, Jule, etc… So it is nice that it is adopted by any culture just to find some light and joy during the cold winter months, as it was originally intended.
    I found the part about Santa crucified on the cross to be the most chuckle inducing though, I just feel that puts the bow on it all.

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