At least, that's how it was when I was growing up. There was scarcely any room for a Christmas tree big enough to have many gifts huddling around in our small two-bedroom apartment, and I feel it might have been, and still is, the case with many Japanese families. After all, this country we live in is quite a small one.
My mother claims that Santa Claus had been coming since I was a little baby, but my memories of Santa begins at the age four, when I began wondering all about this mysterious old man who would deliver gifts to children. I don't really remember my parents telling me about him. My main sources of information were books, songs, and kids' shows on TV. I learned that he wore a red and white uniform along with a matching cap and carried a big sack of gifts. I learned that he came on a flying sleigh drawn by reindeer. I learned that he came into the house through the chimney.
Wait, we don't have a chimney!
Just like most Japanese houses and apartments, there was no fireplace or chimney at our place. The realization got me anxious. I looked around our apartment and wondered if there was an alternative entrance for Santa. Windows might work, but they would be locked during cold winter nights. The same went for the door. It would be unsafe to leave it unlocked when everyone was asleep.
For days, this kept me wondering and worried. I asked my mother, and she just told me he would find a way. On the night of Christmas Eve, I went to bed, thinking I would stay awake and catch Santa, and, of course, fell asleep before knowing.
In the morning, I woke up and found my gift by the pillow. I was delighted, but my curiosity wasn't satisfied. I asked my mother again how Santa had come in, and she grinned and said, "Well, you know what, last night someone rang the door bell around eleven o'clock..."
"It was him?" I gaped in excitement. I couldn't believe it. My mother had seen Santa Claus! It felt like the coolest thing in the world.
"What was he wearing?" I asked.
"Um...I don't remember well. It was a bit dark."
"But was he in red? Red and white like you see in books?" I pressed on, oblivious to the uncertainty in my mother's voice.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Was he wearing a cap? Did he have a beard? Did you see the sleigh? Where were the reindeer?"
All the questions seemed to baffle her, and then, she said simply, "You know, I didn't get to see much because he just stuck out his arm from behind the door and left the gift."
Now it was my turn to be baffled. All along I had thought Santa would actually come to the bed of the child to carefully place the gift for him/her, but now my mother was saying he hurriedly dropped off the gift at the door and went away. It was a bit disappointing, but I also felt it was understanding because he was a super busy man after all.
"So you only saw his arm?" I asked.
"Just the arm."
"What was his arm like? Was his sleeve red and white?"
I wanted to make sure the famous man had come in his famous red coat and white cuffs. I somehow felt it would prove authenticity of the identity of the Santa Claus my mother was talking about.
"Yeah." My mother smiled and nodded with confidence. "It was red and white."
That's how I got this vivid image of Santa's arm sticking out from behind the heavy iron door of our small apartment, and it stayed with me for a long time. Whenever my friends mentioned Santa Claus, it came back to me, and it gave me a strange feeling to think about the gap between what my friends must have been picturing as Santa and this image of the arm of a busy man I had in mind. It was the gap between a pure, happy fantasy and a reality, and thinking that I knew the reality none of my friends knew made me feel both superior and slightly melancholy at the same time.
It's been long since Santa stopped coming for me, but there's one fantasy about him that I have kept. When I have a child of my own and hear a door bell late on the night before Christmas, I will open the door--open it wide--and invite him in. We will chat a little over some herb tea and I will ask him all the questions I have had about him and his job. I won't keep him long, just until he finishes his cup of tea and has had enough rest.Then I will see the old man off at the door so he can keep working for the rest of the night, while the curious child in me smiles, finally perfectly content after a long, long wait.