Walking through the bright streets of the mountain village resort of Karuizawa in December, you might see something that looks out of place in Japan. Here comes Santa Claus, along with his elves dressed in whimsical red and green costumes, merrily handing out gifts to passers-by. Each gift contains a small piece of chocolate or mini candy cane. There’s also something else in the gift bag – a pamphlet that clearly explains the true meaning of Christmas.
Started as a Christmas outreach in 2005 by Tom and Nancy Edwards, the ministry has grown into a major event. Santa has grown in popularity recently in Japan, where Santa is seen as a Christian icon. This year, Santa, otherwise known as Tom, will distribute 30,000 gifts. Volunteers from all over the world, including the United States, South Africa, Japan, Korea, Canada, and Singapore come to Karuizawa to help get the gifts ready, usually staying for weeks at a time. Tom starts growing his bushy white beard in the summertime so he’s ready for the event.
Each year, Tom and Nancy are in awe of how the Lord provides all the funds needed for this joyful outreach. The 30,000 pieces of candy were purchased at Costco back in October so there would be time to get the gifts ready, and the cost of the candy and printing the pamphlets totaled around $10,000 US dollars.
Santa and the elves start appearing in town the first week in December when they help kick off Kaurizawa’s winter festival. Santa also greets shoppers at the outlet mall and in the old historic part of town. Santa waves and smiles at everyone, pausing for pictures while the elves make sure everyone gets a gift. Close to Christmas, the elves give out 1,200 packets an hour at the outlet mall. In the evenings, Santa and elves visit the many restaurants in town. Santa enters the restaurants unannounced, proclaiming “Ho Ho Ho” to the delight of the patrons. The restaurant owners gladly welcome him because it’s good for business. The owners have no problem having the gifts distributed because the pamphlet explains the true meaning of Christmas, and the Japanese love authenticity.
People do take the time to read the pamphlet. Titled “The Christmas Present,” the focus is on how Jesus is the best gift anyone could ever receive. Tom and Nancy have never seen any pamphlets discarded on the streets, indicating interest in the story. On the back of each pamphlet are websites with many links for those who want to know more. Santa and the elves see themselves as planters and trust God to lead many to come to know Him, using the pamphlets as a link along the way. Year after year, God brings it all together, so they are sure He is accomplishing much in people’s hearts!
Because Nancy and Tom are retiring in the summer of 2013, this year’s event is bittersweet. But they are sure others will fill in the gap. “Our God is so creative using so many different ways to get His truth into the hands of those who need to know,” said Nancy. “If God wants to continue using Santa, He will do it.” Before 2005, people always told Tom he should dress as Santa because of his white hair and beard, but he always declined, not wanting to take the focus off Jesus. But one day he heard God say to him, “if you can use Santa to tell the real meaning of Christmas, then I want you to be Santa.” That first year, Santa and a few elves gave out almost 2,000 pamphlets with fear and trepidation not yet knowing that God was going to use Santa in a mighty way. So the question Tom asks is: what do you have that God wants to use? God can do amazing feats through our ordinary things!
-Written by Nancy Edwards and Lisa H. Renninger
-Photography by Nancy and Tom Edwards and Tim Selander