Christmas in Japan

Since I grew up in Southern California, the snow is exciting for me!

If you start humming ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ most Japanese junior high school student’s eyes will light up, because they know the Japanese version: “Makka na ohana no tonakaisan wa itsu mo minna no waraimono. ” (The English translation of their first line: “The reindeer with the bright red nose, always a laughing-stock to everyone.”)

Or, if you bring your ukulele to school, and invite the entire school to sing Christmas carols with you after lunch, you can expect everyone to sing along.

Christmas as an ALT is one of the best parts of the year, second only to Halloween where we can wear our costumes to school and give out Halloween stickers (or candy, depending on the school.)

Last December, I recruited some teachers to sing Christmas carols with me to students after lunch. At my smaller school, the 居と先生  (kyoto sensei, or vice principal,  who is also a music teacher) played the piano, I sang and played the ukulele, and a musically-inclined social studies teacher gave some nice harmonies for “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells.” This year I asked them again, but on the day we had planned to sing together the vice principal had to guard the phones in the office and the social studies teacher suddenly got sick and went home, so it was up to me to bring the Christmas spirit alone. I chose “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”

I had a great worksheet with the lyrics in English and Japanese thanks to a very talented principal (and English teacher) at an elementary school in my town who made a translation  for her students. When I visited her school, she had all of her English classes sing it as a warm up. I made copies of her lyrics and brought them to my other schools so students could understand and pronounce the words correctly.

I had sung this song dozens of times in front of other classes, but this time I was a bit nervous because it was the first time I was gathering the whole school by myself. They surrounded me at the piano, and I passed out the lyrics with translations in English and Japanese.  I wore my magical Christmas hat and played my ukulele, and we sang: “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”

To the students shock, I asked the crowd, “Can someone play the piano?” I knew it was almost an impossible request – imagine playing a song you haven’t practiced for the first time in front of your entire school! – but there are some talented pianists, so I thought I’d ask.

Besides Christmas carols, talking about holidays in Japanese schools is fun because students don’t know much about them, and its a nice respite from their textbook. It’s our chance to teach them about an important part of our culture. I made a powerpoint with photos of sparkling houses, Christmas tree lots, gingerbread houses, and so on. After the presentation, we sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” as a class.

Whenever I deliver my presentations, I try to pepper my talking with questions. “What’s this?” “Do you have a tree at your house?” “What do you do for Christmas?” After a year of teaching at my Junior High, I’ve come to realize that most students don’t want to be lectured in English (or any language, probably) for more than about 30 seconds before their eyes start to glaze over. I try my best to make my talking as interactive as possible, with time for them to discuss ideas with partners and with clarifying questions at the end. I also try to use grammar they’ve recently learned.

Another fun thing about Christmas is that it gives us a chance to decorate the school. Thanks to my Facebook newsfeed I was seeing other ALT’s creative Christmas inventions, which prompted me to make my own. My British friend Becky (who is also a designer, you can see her work here)  made a one month advent calendar for students.


Mine weren’t quite as extravagant, but I’m still happy with how they turned out. I tried to make them educational with question and answer style format. I have two schools, so I made two of them.


After I made this board, two of my students approached me and asked me to sing ‘Let it Snow’ for them, because I listed it as my favorite Christmas song!

Here’s my Christmas board from my base school. I recruited a special education class and their teacher to help me make it.
Thanks to my friend Tony who gave me this magic hat last year. It sings and dances!!!


4 thoughts on “Christmas in Japan

  1. Tracy Young

    Amber, I love hearing about your experiences in Japan. I continue to be impressed with your bravery.. I admire your ability to try new things and to share so much of yourself with your students. Their lives are being enriched so much by you being their teacher. I have no doubt that they will remember you for the rest of their lives. Happy New Year and hugs from Ventura!
    Love, Aunt Tracy

  2. Uncle Andy

    Amber, you’re enriching the students (and adults) that you intersect with and you’re also enriching yourself, with life experiences and skills that you’re developing. You are making the world great!

  3. Hannah Ruth

    This is awesome, Ambs! Sounds like you’re doing great work over there. Merry Christmas (a few days late) ❤ ❤ ❤

  4. Boao Zou

    Awesome. Hey, I passed English 100 with another tutor’s help. I’m just impressed that you and other instructors are so patient to help non-native English speakers improve. I guess this message is going to light your day up, Amber!

    I check your blog occasionally, and it’s great to see you are gradually adopting Asian culture! It might be even better if you started to learn the third language– Chinese. Lol.

    Anyway, Hopefully, you can make some new difference in 2017! Miss you.

    Boao Zou

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