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True Winter Tales: Today's pick

Christmas in Japan by Rhonda Collis

In Sendai, Japan, close to the epicentre of the most recent earthquake, winter is very similar to our own in southern Canada with temperatures dipping below freezing and snowfalls that stick. It was because of the climate that my husband and I chose to live there for a year in 1991 and work as English teachers. But that meant, of course, we'd be away for Christmas. I've since cursed that Christmas as my worst but when I think back now it was the year I really looked around and noticed the beauty of winter and how it enhanced my sense of celebration.

Christmas Eve, the snow fell in those kinds of flakes that are delightfully soft like powder and mysteriously iridescent, giving you a warm feeling in your core though you can't feel your fingertips or toes. It was late but we'd been invited over to a friend's place so we kicked the fresh snow into dervishes in front of us. Haloes of stilted breath hung in the air against the curtain of night.

I dug deep to find the sprit of the holiday because there were no Christmas lights, no special church services (or churches for that matter, when compared to home) and we passed nobody on the street to whom we could wish a Merry Christmas. We stopped at a store to pick up treats and encountered no light smile or wistful eyes from the clerk at the cash register. The holiday was lacking and my North American spirit, accustomed to being indulged, was outraged.

From the store to our friend's place was a five-minute walk past tidy white houses with rice paper windowpanes, and apartments framed by snow-laden bamboo bushes. Our friend greeted us and we entered her small tatami mat room, the size of a typical Canadian kitchen, with a tiny closet for a bathroom. Candlelight winked and English Christmas carols played. We drank plum wine and ate rice cakes and shortbread. I counted every tiny Christmas light on the single string along the bookshelves.

On the walk home silence grew thick with the deepening cold and the most recent burnish of snow. The only break in the starlit quiet was the random brittle snapping of branches. Back at our apartment, my husband, Chris, had covered our only bookshelf with a construction paper fireplace at the base of which we set our few wrapped gifts. The next morning, Christmas Day, we sat around it as we would a Christmas tree before rousing ourselves to go to work. All trains ran on normal schedules despite my prayers for a blizzard; for nature to take matters into her own hands. Little did I know, she already had. She'd given us her gifts the night before: an endless trove of intricate designs floating flawlessly formed, and recyclable to boot. And on Christmas morning, the squeak of my boots on all those beautiful crystals made it clear she hadn't forgotten the season.

Rhonda Collis is from Cobble Hill, BC

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