With Christmas just ending and our winter vacation just beginning, I’ve been remembering my first Christmas in Japan before I was married. That first year, I didn’t really know what to expect. Many people seem to think of Christmas as being universally celebrated, but in fact it still feels somewhat new in Japan.
Unlike in Europe or most Western countries, Christmas is not really a “family” event so much as a popular couples-day for dinner dating and seeing illuminations. Some (but not all) families might give their children gifts.. but children probably receive fewer gifts compared to kids in countries where Christmas has already become highly commercialized. Companies in Japan are just starting to snag onto the marketing opportunities, which means that we can likely expect a much more materialistic Christmas in years to come..
Other Christmas traditions in Japan including eating chicken and Christmas cake. Thanks to clever marketing by KFC, and now by other chains such as Moss Burger, fried chicken has become a Christmas staple. Christmas cake is often eaten on Christmas Eve, and a popular choice is a round sponge cake with whipped cream frosting and strawberries. At a nursery school near our house, children also design Santa Claus faces with puffy white beards, much like I did as a kid. In Japan, you can also hear pretty much the same Christmas music playing in stores and restaurants as in the U.S., though with a few Japanese versions thrown in as well. In addition, some (but not all) families put up artificial trees.. and I’ve yet to see a real Christmas tree sold anywhere. I really miss the smell of pine needles in the house! We make do with a small artificial tree for the time being..
Stores are also starting to carry more Christmas candy options, including pre-filled stockings for children, full of sweets and small toys. When Masashi was a child, he and his sister used to put their socks out near their pillows, and would find them filled with small gifts in the morning. They used actual socks, versus the elaborate fuzzy stockings which might be seen hanging by a fireplace in the U.S.
Much more widely celebrated and important culturally during the winter season in Japan is the celebration of “Shogatsu” (see here). After salary-men attend bounenkai (end of the year parties) to forget their troubles, most workers have several days off to spend with family to welcome in the new year. This time off is generally longer than their counterparts in countries such as America, but probably made up by the fact that Japanese have long working hours during the rest of the year.
During shogatsu, families may visit a shrine around midnight before the start of the new year. Even families with no religious beliefs whatsoever will still make the trip out to visit. The main religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism, however only 40% of people are said to identify with a religion, so for the most part practices such as shrine-visiting seem to be tradition or superstition, rather than based on religious conviction. Notably, my husband and I are Christian, of which there are about 1-2 million in Japan, but we are in the minority.
In our family, we are still forming our own traditions. We celebrate Christmas, and I have grown to enjoy spending time with family and eating traditional foods to celebrate the new year. During the Christmas season we attend candlelight service at church, exchange a few gifts, and eat a delicious dinner (last year we had steak.. but being pregnant and unable to stomach much, “delicious” was off the menu for me this year..). Being singers also means that the holiday season includes practicing and performing. However, living in a place where Christmas is less of a “big deal” actually makes it easier to sort out what is really important about Christmas – aside from all the shiny, sparkling trappings and the shopping frenzy that has become so inseparable from it.
Christmas is watching the snow fall slowly from the mountains deep in the countryside of Masashi’s hometown, and reading the Bible with fresh eyes to understand what it really meant for a child to be born. Christmas means prayer, family, and knowing an unchanging love that reaches beyond the boundaries of culture or country, to every people.
Merry Christmas from our family to yours. <3