A Christmas Gift to Japan
By Fr Philip Ilio Bonifacio
As December starts, people put their Christmas trees up, illumine their houses with Christmas lights and other decorations to create the ambiance of the Christmas season. In the Philippines, people gather in small groups for the evening caroling or daigon, going from house to house using improvised musical instruments. People are excited by the Misa de Gallo. We delight with fireworks greeting the night as we do the count down. It is the favorite time of the year for children as they await their gifts from ninongs and ninangs. Our Christmas comes alive with all the sharing and giving.
I used to think that the spirit of Christmas was the same in every part of the world.
For more than two decades, since I was assigned here after my ordination in 1995, I have spent most of my Christmases in Japan. Catholics – fewer than one in two hundred of the population of more than 127 million and about one fifth of all Christians - attend Christmas Eve Mass, sing some carols and share tea. After that, they go home. The atmosphere is nice with Christmas lights but firecrackers are not allowed, and there’s no house-to-house Daigon.
My first Christmas here was a bit lonely. After the evening Mass, I was left alone in the parish since my companion parish priest had left for Ireland. It felt so sad since I had no family to spend the season with. So I called my family in the Philippines to greet them. Then I phoned the Filipino parishioners as they were either alone or with their spouses, also sad for being away from home. We met and agreed to go to a restaurant. Since then we’ve been doing this every year after the ‘Midnight Mass’. We gather as many Filipinos as would like to join us for our Japanese Noche Buena.
Sometimes we go to one house for coffee. It’s a joy also to share Filipino dishes cooked by Filipino parishioners. That’s how we celebrate Christmas. We become one family as we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ.
In 2012 I became parish priest of St Michael the Archangel Parish, Matsudo, Archdiocese of Tokyo.
The Filipino Community is in charge of decorating the hall for the Christmas season. One day I asked myself, ‘How can I make Christmas memorable for the children here in Matsudo?’ I knew I had to initiate something. So two years ago, I incorporated caroling and gift-giving into the Midnight Mass. It was the first of a kind in Japan. Gift-giving in this context might be ordinary for us Filipinos but is something extraordinary for the Japanese.
I invited some parishioners to help prepare the gifts for the offertory at Tagalog and Japanese Masses. We came up with between 100 and 200 gifts for children. And at the Christmas Mass, before the final blessing, we invited all the children to come up to receive their gifts. Shy as they might seem, you could see big smiles on their faces.
We also have a kindergarten near the church where I have been teaching English since 2013. I was later invited to become its principal but declined as I had other obligations. My decision was affirmed by the bishop. Before, there had been no connection between the kindergarten and the church. I think it was the previous Japanese priest who drew the line to avoid conflict – let Christian service be for Christians, Japanese for the Japanese only. Christianity is seen as foreign by most Japanese and Filipinos are regarded as foreigners.
But if you say to Japanese people, ‘our parish is also Japanese’, they are surprised to know that there are Japanese parishioners actively participating in the Church. They often react with, ‘I thought it is only for foreigners’. Some Japanese are a bit shy about their identity, so it’s good to motivate them. We are not exclusive.
Carol singing before Christmas Eve Mass
Since the principal of the kindergarten is a Catholic, I talked to her and invited the Japanese children in Yōchien (kindergarten) to join the parish Mass on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day so that we might also give them gifts. She responded positively.
The day came with Japanese children bringing their parents and grandparents. For the first time, they experienced the church community on Christmas Day and a parish giving gifts to children. Since we are in the context of the Church, we say that Father (Priest) was distributing the gifts, not Santa Claus. The kids wore big smiles as they received their gifts. They were delighted and we were more than happy to see them rejoice on Christmas Day, a memorable occasion for them and one they now look forward to each year.
Some Japanese members of the Parish Pastoral Council initially questioned this, thinking that it would entail expenses. But ‘This is Christmas and we don't usually do this’ prevailed and we all ended up happy. The beauty is that with Japanese children bringing their grandparents, the elders now want to come back. And the Catholic parents are also encouraging grandparents to tag along with their grandchildren. So we came upwith an additional preparation for Christmas, a Communal Rite of Reconciliation for the Japanese on the first or second Saturday of December.
I am happy with this kind of Christmas spent with the children and their families, happy because parents are very supportive in bringing their children – and there are many of them - to church. It's nice to see them re-introduced to the Church. Others who learned about this activity start to inquire about the different services offered by the parish.
Mother Church is inviting us ‘to go out and find your sheep’. And this is how we in Matsudo Parish have responded. This is our Christmas gift to Japan.
The Little Angels of Nagasaki with Andre Rieu ‘Silent Night’ in Japanese