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Another Santa by Keith Holeman

This time every year I find my mind drifting in and out of thoughts of the many people who have blessed my life. It naturally happens, no motivation needed. Advent just does that to me. My own expectation – for the new experiences, people, and the good we can do around here – easily triggers gratitude for myriad people in as many places—all the images of God who have passed my way.

I lived in Japan for seventeen Christmases. A long time ago.

Now, Advent and its waiting, expectation, and birth of new beginnings—for me—frequently conjures memories of frigid, unheated Buddhist temples, and the sting of shoeless frozen feet padding along wooden walkways while seeking a place to sit on a sprawling floor of tatami mats for a few moments of peace and reflection, away from the endless bustle.

This Advent is the fifth since my mentor died. His name was Santa. He was an iconic Japanese commercial director who took me under his wing in the waning days of an era when the relationship was still called apprenticeship, and it wasn’t merely one artist mentoring another during the day—but was familial in its depth and encompassed the teaching and mulling over of both craft and life; a deep intermingling of the personal, professional, and philosophical.

The first time Santa and I worked together, we immediately hit it off. Long story short, when the small film company where I worked folded about nine months after I arrived in Tokyo—and after a discouraging six months of going door-to-door for work, Santa saw I was serious, and asked me if I was interested in occasionally working with him. I, of course, was overjoyed. In the beginning he called me his assistant (same word in Japanese), but over time he began calling me his apprentice. He taught me the ropes of production in Japan; introduced me to the best artists and technicians in the industry—and to the gate guards at the studios; and involved me in every aspect of his productions—while simultaneously assigning me all of his grunt work, which I did assiduously. And he brought me into his home and family.

Santa Sugiyama was a thinker, teacher and doer. He taught those he worked with to be kind and respect-filled to all—whomever we happened to be with, and wherever we found ourselves in the world.

He and I sometimes had long and heated late-night conversations about the nature of United States foreign policy, and America’s tendency to go to war for any reason because Americans seemed to have lost all creativity when it came to diplomacy—because the use of force was the easier, lazier option. It was sometimes annoying because there was a time, early on, when I had an over-romanticized view of my country (and he’d get mad at me!)—but his life experience was much different than mine, and that’s where he was determined to mentor me.

Many times he told me stories about his terror at growing up during the horrific fire bombings of Tokyo in WWII, about surviving with death and destruction all around him, about scavenging to stave off starvation in the midst of daily bombings. To Santa, war, for any reason, was unfounded—and the lack of will of the problem-solvers to sit down and succeed at their jobs, so others wouldn’t have to suffer as he had as a kid, was a sin. His world was one in which no one deserved to suffer trauma and violence by the hand of another. He was a loving guy who wanted me to know about justice and compassion. After his retirement, entirely in character, he became a staunch AIDS-prevention advocate.

If there was ever someone who was made in the image of God, it was Santa-san. And the gratitude I feel for his presence in my life grows by the year.

My hope is that this Advent, as we work to make sense of the disorienting state of the world, you find the face of God in a Santa of your own.

Keith Holeman is Director of Communications at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

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