Christmas time 1973 I was a newly-arrived seminarian in Japan. It was my first-ever Christmas away from home.The “economic miracle” of the country’s post-war recovery was in full swing. Before the end of the decade, a best-selling book would tout Japan as Number One.
However, the miracle was not yet complete, even in the capital Tokyo. Large parts of the metropolis were not yet connected to a sewer system, and so what English-speakers called “honey wagons,” trucks that pumped out septic tanks, were a common sight and smell in residential neighborhoods.
Buildings slapped together after World War 2 were being replaced with more substantial structures. Supermarkets had not yet replaced vendors selling foodstuffs and household items from handcarts. They used bells, horns or chants to advertise their presence, with different instruments and tunes depending upon their product. I miss them much more than I miss the honey wagons.
Equipped with only a few weeks of language study, I decided to spend my Christmas vacation from language school up north on the snowy island of Hokkaido, staying with a priest in a coal-mining town where the travel instructions were basically, “Go to the middle of nowhere and turn right into the mountains.”
The middle of nowhere was easy to find since it was the town where steam locomotives that served much of the island met up with diesel trains. So, there was always a cloud of black smoke over the place visible from far away. Now that town is no longer a travel hub, and it does not even exist anymore; it was merged with another.
When I arrived, the priest told me that he had been contacted by people in a little settlement farther out in the mountains. They wanted to have a Christmas party for their kids. They knew that the church had something to do with Christmas and knew as well that the priest would not arrive empty-handed.
So, we loaded fruit and candy into the car on Christmas Eve and drove off into a winter wonderland. We drove, that is until we could go no farther on the snowbound road. We hiked the last part of the way.
The party was in a shack with the wind whistling through the walls. There was a handful of kids and a drunk man in a Santa suit.
The priest told the kids the story of Christmas and then taught them to play Bingo. One of them was intellectually handicapped and could not understand the numbers for the game. Since I had at least learned my numbers, we were paired as a team.
Here I was in a drafty shed with snow blowing through the walls. A drunken Santa Claus was snoozing in the corner. I understood next to nothing that was being said, teamed up with a poor kid for whom, apart from pointing to numbers on a Bingo card, I could do nothing. I was on the far side of the globe from my family and friends, and all that Christmas with them meant.
I began to feel lonely, thoroughly miserable, and sorry for myself. What the hell kind of Christmas was this?
And then, so forcefully that it almost seemed audible enough to be heard by everyone, one word came to me: Bethlehem.
This year will be a kind of reenactment of that Christmas in a shed in Japan for many of us.
Covid-19 forces us to do without so much that traditionally makes the feast and season special – being with family and friends, partying, visiting, shopping, gifting, feasting, even churchgoing. This year, much of that is impossible.
Many of us mourn family and friends lost to the disease. Many are out of work and sinking beneath financial disaster. Schools are disrupted. Experts tell us that things will worsen as January is likely to be the worst month before vaccines become widely available and begin to beat back the plague.
With so much else stripped away, even life itself, one word remains. Bethlehem.
Like it or not, we are forced to face this Christmas with everything stripped away except the simple fact that Christ is with us not as a doll under the Christmas tree, not as the subject of songs and stories, not as a distraction from the other elements of the season, but as God with us, Emmanuel.
God with us in our worst situation. God with us in our own poverty and that of others. God with us not to make everything as we wish, but God with us to share our confusion, our disappointment, our pain, our death. That is the meaning of Bethlehem.
This year, Christmas is either about God with us, or it is nothing. If Covid Christmas teaches us that, next year, we may resume the trappings of the season, but with a new unclouded knowledge of what the feast really is.
A note: that priest with whom I spent my first Japan Christmas died last April, one of Covid’s victims.
Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCA News based in Tokyo, Japan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.