I place two slices of whole wheat bread into the toaster, set on medium-high to achieve a dark brown crustiness. The milk is heating up over a low flame to avoid scalding. When the toast pops up, butter is spread evenly and cinnamon-sugar is sprinkled generously over the slice. In a Christmas-themed mug, chocolate is stirred into the steaming milk. Carried on a lacquered tray, we carefully put the cinnamon-sugar toast and hot cocoa out for Santa. This annual routine was a timeless family tradition.
My role was simple during Christmas when I was a little boy: Find gifts (with assistance) for a list of recipients no longer than my own hand, stay healthy during a hectic holiday schedule, keep my excitement at a tolerable level for my parents, and be in bed by 7:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve so we can open presents sooner.
Now, in its current quarter-century form, my role has expanded considerably. My Christmas gift list must be managed in an Excel spreadsheet. I am cautiously using Purell hand sanitizer at the conclusion of each shopping trip. Christmas seems to come too soon as it is considered more as a laborious process rather than a gleeful 12-day countdown. Gift wrapping and TV watching go well beyond midnight as our set waking time to open presents has continually gotten closer and closer to the time we have to literally leave for Christmas brunch at Uncle Stony and Auntie Janet’s house.
Regarding this transformed role, I now ask myself this question: At what age do you officially become inducted into the “Association of Santa’s Helpers”? As a freshman member of A.S.H., I find myself wrapping dozens of gifts and stuffing stockings and signing Santa’s signature. For a certain reason, I do not think Santa is left-handed. Check my gift tags for persuasive evidence (i.e. smudged writing due to dragging of left hand over wet ink).
My Christmas wish list has become quite boring over the years. It’s practical. It takes costs into consideration. It will actually make me productive and not rot my brain. I went from pleading for remote-control cars and Hot Wheels to formally requesting a KitchenAid stand-up mixer and a pin-striped, two-button suit. This evolution goes well beyond the basic Christmas gift. A handwritten letter to Santa has transformed into a time-stamped email to a Google-group that informs every member of my extended family (with delivery confirmation).
Another major event during the holiday season has also evolved in recent years. Observing News Year’s Eve (NYE) has changed from drinking apple cider with my parents and being able to stay up until midnight to see the ball drop in Times Square to calling my parents from an extremely loud NYE bash in Hollywood to wish them “Happy New Year.”
Although the traditions of Osho-gatsu and festivities of New Year’s Day have not changed, a transition of responsibility has taken place over the past few years. My grandmother, Mary Furutani, was the “grand marshal” of Oshogatsu for our family. She supervised the rolling of sushi, made the ozoni, and coordinated the essential components of our celebration. After her passing in 2007, my grandmother had successfully passed on her responsibilities to the next generation of women in the Furutani family. My mother made the seamless transition into the role of coordinating Oshogatsu, while Auntie Marsha now makes the ozoni, Auntie Janet coordinates the sushi making, and Auntie Ginny crafts some of the traditional Japanese dishes. My grandmother lives on through the honoring of these traditions, in every nori-maki rolled by her grandchildren, the warmth and soothing sensation of a sip of ozoni broth, and the gathering of cherished family and friends.
No matter what my New Year’s Eve plans are, I know that it is truly essential to make it to Grandma’s house on New Year’s morning, no matter how many (but more like how little) hours of sleep I’ve had. I am a true believer of the Japanese tradition of ringing in the new year with your family to remind you of the foundation that has brought you this far, enjoying a warm bowl of ozoni to ensure good luck and strength, and forcing down kuro-mame (eating the number of beans for the number of years living) to signify success and good health. As an afterthought, maybe I would currently be a millionaire and could run marathons on a weekly basis if I enjoyed the sweet black beans.
DISCLAIMER: If you still believe in Santa Claus, please refrain from reading the following paragraph.
Although now I am the last person to go to sleep on Christmas Eve, I still put out two slices of cinnamon-sugar toast with a mug of hot cocoa (made with soy milk). Before going to bed, I take a large bite of one of the slices and a careful sip — leaving a huge indentation and a lip mark of chocolate — (planted) evidence that will keep the kid in all of us alive and well for years to come.
Best wishes to all of you for a very happy holiday season. And remember, keep believing… and eat your kuro-mame.
Joey T. Furutani works in the field of strategic communications and is a graduate of UCLA. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.