So a lot of people have asked me about Christmas in Japan. Well, the Japanese are masters at appropriating elements or foreign cultures and then thoroughly Japanizing them to fit the the needs of their own culture.
Christmas is no exception.
How do you say “Merry Christmas” in Japanese?
it’s the Japanized version of the English phrase.
Young people shorten it to メリクリ (meri kuri).
Christmas Eve is called:
クリスマスイブ kurisumasu ibu
or just イブ ibu for short.
The Religious Stuff
One of the most notable differences is the apparent lack of the Jesus-related trappings of Christmas. It seems ol’ JC got lost in translation. Japan is a very secular society. In fact, only about 1% of the country claims Christianity as their faith. Although roughly 80% of the population claims to adhere to Shintoism or Buddhism (or both), the reality is most Japanese just aren’t very religious or downright atheist, occasionally practicing certain religious rites to keep in touch with the old traditions. So, it’s not surprising that the particularly uninteresting story of a poor baby born in a desert in bronze age Palestine wouldn’t appeal to the sensibilities of modern Japanese. Occasionally, you will see angels or some other religious trappings, particularly on imported goods. But for the most part, all the boring religious stuff gets skipped over in favor of the flashy pagan stuff that even most westerners will agree makes it most fun.
an actual Christmas Card from about 20 years ago
Santa-san is Coming to Town
Of course, Santa is big here. While everybody knows his name is Santa Claus, he is affectionately referred to with the honorific suffix “-san” (this suffix is fairly well known outside of Japan and somewhat similar to “Mr./Mrs” in English). So Santa Claus becomes Santa-san.
Japanese houses don’t have chimneys, so I’ve always wondered how he delivers toys to the little boys and girls here. I don’t know if this is a widespread story or not, but my girlfriend’s father told her that Santa-san is like a ghost and can walk through walls. Pretty spooky.
Japanese friends who don’t know all the Christmas traditions, have asked me what the elves are all about. I tried to explain that they build toys for Santa. But I usually get a stunned look and サンタさんの奴隷？？マジで？ (Santa-san no dorei?? maji de? They’re Santa’s slaves??? Seriously??)
santa-san can be a girl too…
Christmas Cake and KFC
“Christmas Cake” just refers to any kind of cake decorated in some wintery, semi-Christmassy style. I don’t think there is a particular flavor. The ones I have had are quite delicious and beautifully decorated (the Japanese are masters of cakes and sweets, particularly in the European traditions). Often the convenience stores put makeshift stands on the streets and peddle cakes to pedestrians heading home after work. While I don’t recall ever seeing a “Christmas Cake” in any of the Christmas celebrations of my home town, it doesn’t seem like a particularly strange practice.
The thing that sort of caught me by surprise during my first celebration in Tokyo, was how everyone was looking forward to chicken from KFC. This year was the first year I actually indulged in the Colonel’s fine victuals. There was a loooooooong line outside of the shop (seemed longer on Christmas Eve than Christmas Day).
If you order in advance, you can procure a whole roasted chicken and some very large family sized buckets of roasted chicken legs and breasts and thighs. At the shop I visited in Nakano, the fried menu had been limited to original recipe. Crispy strips (my fave) and chicken sandwiches, wraps and the like were unavailable until the 26th.
One more thing about Christmas Cake.
On Dec. 26, nobody wants to buy Christmas Cake anymore. So a Japanese girl who turns 26 before getting married is derogatorily referred to as “Christmas Cake” – because obviously nobody will want her anymore. Ouch!
Short & Sweet
Christmas is not a national holiday so if you’re not a foreigner working for a foreign company, chances are you’ll be working on Christmas. You won’t be meeting up with all of your family from all over the country and sitting around a traditional feast with wine and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Although these days a lot of families with small children will set up a small tree and some decorations and may even go through the whole Santa-san charade, the kids just get one present or two. They may receive it on イブ (“ibu”, Christmas Eve) or first thing in the morning before going to school. Family celebrations are short and sweet. There are still a lot of families who don’t celebrate at all – in fact, they might not even know which day is Christmas, though they know it’s Christmas season because you can’t get away from the ubiquitous Christmas music and lights.
So who is Christmas mainly celebrated by? The truth is Japanese Christmas is basically a holiday for couples, and young couples at that. Perhaps they’ll enjoy a romantic dinner (chicken, of course) washed down with some expensive wine or champagne. イブ (“ibu” – “eve,” as in Christmas Eve) is a pretty big business day for intimate restaurants. If they can get the day off, many couples like to make a quick getaway to an elegant hotel. Some hotels offer a Christmas package which would include a dinner and Christmas Cake. From my own experience, I’ve gone to 旅館 (“ryokan,” traditional japanese style inn). The room is a classic Japanese room with tatami floors and a futon. A yukata (a kind of kimono) is also provided. We like to choose rooms with a private hot spring bath attached to the veranda, so you can kick it in the steaming hot bath and look at the mountains and sea and snow. It’s a pretty awesome way to spend Christmas! The food at a ryokan will be traditional Japanese fare. Sashimi, rice, miso soup and whatever local vegetables and meats are in season. Of course, they provide you with a complimentary Christmas Cake.
A lot of couples opt for a cheaper and more practical kind of hotel. Japan is famous for love hotels, gaudy erotic playgrounds with massive beds and a jacuzzi (sometimes karaoke and video games, too) that can be rented overnight or by the hour for the sole purpose of sex. In Uguisudani, an area of Tokyo famous for its many love hotels, a lot of the hotels get so much business on XXXmas that they put a 3 hour max time limit on each room and a line of couples will be wrapped around the building waiting in the cold for their turn to get a room.
one love hotel’s special christmas rates!
Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am!
The shops start playing Christmas music and putting up decorations 2 months or so before the actual day. Some of the most extravagant and high-tech illuminations in the world are right here in Tokyo. I don’t want to think about how expensive the electricity bill is for these projects or who’s paying for them… but they are really beautiful. In the US, it seems like Christmas decorations stay up until at least New Years, and some people keep them up until January 6th (The Epiphany still being part of the religious observance of the Christmas Season).But in Japan it’s all over on the 26th.
Literally erased from view.
You’ll wake up the next day and won’t see a single light, wreath, or Santa-san. The clean up is so efficient and thorough that if you hadn’t actually seen the stuff up, you’d think there was no such thing as Christmas in Japan at all.I used to think that this was just the silliest thing ever – an example of Japanese over-efficiency. But recently, I have another theory. The biggest holiday in Japan – the big family holiday which brings everyone from all over the country back to their home towns – is お正月 (o-shōgatsu, New Year’s Day). It’s not a very consumer driven holiday, but it is a rather solemn holiday and it IS a real Japanese holiday, deeply connected to the culture and history and language. I’ve come to think now, that while Christmas is all fun and all, they clean it all up quickly to get people into the mind set of o-shōgatsu and remove all the distractions of this foreign practice. And if that’s the case, fair enough. It’s their damn culture, they can do what they want with it.
the trappings of o-shogatsu are much more formal
Since this is my first blog post, I’m in need of feed back. If I’ve left anything out or been unclear, point it out and I’ll add it to this when I expand it for next year’s Christmas post!!
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