At some point over the course of my tea lessons, Tea-sensei happened to mention using chocolate truffles for Christmas tea ceremonies. The mention of chocolate made me excited and very curious, and next thing you know, several months later we started planning a tea ceremony for Christmas 2014.

Although I was originally in this for the chocolate, Tea-sensei was excited to use it as a chance to bring out the tools and decorative items she usually doesn’t have any other chance to use. She and her husband run a shop that sells very expensive stuff, mostly with a traditional Japanese spin, but they are knowledgable of and collect wares from around the world. Although the Japanese tea ceremony tends to put a heavy emphasis on items made by Japanese craftsmen, as well as Korean and at time Chinese craftsmen, she occasionally uses things like incense containers from Thailand during practices, and she was looking forward to using her items from Europe and Africa for this ceremony.

Combining a holiday that feels both Western and modern with a traditional and very Japanese-feeling practice may strike people as odd, but the tea ceremony as we know it today actually owes a lot to the Catholic Mass. The founder of the three major schools of tea ceremony, Sen Rikyuu (1522-1591), although he was not a Christian convert, lived in a time when many samurai warlords were baptized Christians and welcomed the Portugese missionaries (this is before the attitudes at the top changed and then Christians were persucuted). Rikyu was therefore familiar with the religion and had attended Mass, which influenced part of the motions of the tea ceremony. Many early practitioners of the tea ceremony, most famously Takayama Ukon (aka Dom Justo Takayama), one of Rikyu’s seven closest followers, were Christians and viewed the tea ceremony through that angle. It’s very likely that Christmas tea ceremonies were celebrated regularly, like other seasonal occasions.

Tea-sensei, who is not Christian and has never had a foreign or Christian student before me, has done these a number of times in the past even if not consistently. There are some details she keeps consistent, such as one of the first details she mentioned after the chocolate truffles: in the tokonoma (decorative alcove) there is usually a seasonal scroll, which often has subjects heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. For a Christmas tea ceremony, however, they hang a painting of Mary and offer the tea before her first, and everyone bows in thanks for her having given birth to Jesus. The painting she chose was from her collection of African Christian art, of which I’ve seen a few items from but cannot recall the details of which items came from which countries.

She asked for my input at many steps of planning the ceremony, especially on what sorts of items to use for a traditional ceremony. “What sort of chawan should we use?” she asked, and off the cuff, I answered gold since baby Jesus received that from the Wise Men. She immediately made a mental note of it and asked what else he received, which lead to a discussion of the merits or demerits of using frankincense or mhyrr in a tea ceremony (in the end, we did not–that would be a little too overpowering).

I tried looking for material about what kinds of tools the tea ceremony practioners might have used back in the 16th century but found nothing, so I had to answer based on familiarity with a side of Christmas not often seen in Japan’s Santa and Snowman displays in shopping malls. She asked which flowers to use, and it seems she hadn’t even thought to use pointsettias or holly. Upon that suggestion, her husband made this wreath with a crucifix to hang in entry of the house, which would set the mood for everyone on their way to the tea room.

Because it was so close to the end of the year, when the students usually get together to do a massive cleaning of every knook and cranny of the tea rooms and all the tools for practice throughout the year, ten or so of us did that first before getting ready for the evening ceremony. I wore a dress instead of a kimono, as I was also taking advantage of the chance to use some nice Western style items I don’t usually have a good excuse to wear, and it was nice not to have to wear a kimono for performing the ceremony.

Performing the ceremony by candlelight, however, was very difficult. As nice as the atmosphere was, I could hardly see what I was doing, and I was not used to the very wide and heavy natsume (tea caddy) I was using, which was actually foreign pottery item instead of a Japanese laquerware piece. I wound up spilling a bunch of tea in my lap while trying to put the lid back in place, but thankfully, my dress was more forgiving to being coated in matcha powder than a kimono likely would have been. Oops. Not one of my more graceful moments. In the low light, however, hardly anyone could tell and thankfully I didn’t need to stand up until the end of ceremony and had a good chance to clean it up before letting it spill all over the tatami mats.

Moments like that are what make private ceremonies with your school mates very relaxed and fun, especially since it was a learning experience for everyone. With so many tools we were unfamiliar with, everyone took their time observing each one, and there was so much information that I could not keep organized in my head which tea bowl came from which European country, but I do recall interesting details such as chosing the tea bowl with the fish as a Christian symbol, which I wouldn’t have thought of using for Christmas. Although I am usually at the receiving end of all this information overload, I was also asked to explain some of the Christian symbolism and background they weren’t familiar with, and by the end of the night, everyone had learned something new in addition to enjoying the tea ceremony for the purely the tea aspect.

I had no explanation for the Christmas Cake, though. That’s a Japanese thing, and I doubt it’s the sort of thing Sen Rikyu would have used in a 16th century ceremony. I find it more sad for him and his guests that they didn’t have chocolate truffles.

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