Christmas Time in Japan
Being that most Japanese are Buddhist and Shinto, Christmas takes on a very different meaning in Japan. The streets are still decorated with Christmas lights and images of Santa Claus. Christmas music still plays incessantly everywhere you go. And, the shops and department stores still have great sales. But unlike in America and other Western countries, Christmas has little of the religious meaning we associate with the holiday and doesn’t center around the family. Instead, it’s just (a highly commercialized) cool thing to do.
Most Japanese will tell you that Christmas in Japan is for couples. This is the one time of year that couples will exchange gifts, enjoy a meal together and stroll through the brilliant Christmas displays. Not even on Valentine’s day does this happen in Japan (more on that at another time). But thanks to some suave marketing, families and friends now participate in the holiday in some way, and there are now a few truly Japanese traditions that have sprung up around Christmas Japan.
My personal favorite is going to see the incredibly beautiful Christmas lights in public areas, gardens and parks. Larger cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama create giant displays lit up like wintery wonderlands. Various themes feature snowflakes, snowmen, Santa Claus and whatever other images struck the designer’s fancy, including folk and fairy tales, and of course the occasional anime character. Most of the displays are free to see and crowds flock to them from the end of October to early February.
As for Christmas dinner, somewhere along the way it became a popular notion that Westerners had a Christmas ‘chicken’ feast, instead of turkey or ham. Capitalizing on this idea, KFC advertises a special holiday dinner with a bucket of fried chicken and all the trimmings. Families can pre-order their meals, and on Christmas Eve, you can see lines of people of at the KFC waiting to pick up their buckets. I have to admit, I fell prey to the marketing while living in Japan and had to try it myself one year. It didn’t quite quell the homesickness for a real Christmas meal, but it did remind me of why I don’t normally eat KFC back home.
Another ‘only in Japan’ experience is Christmas Cake. Found in department stores and bakeries right up until Dec 25th, this simple cake vanilla or chocolate cake is heavily covered in cream frosting and decorated with Santas, holly and other miniatures. It’s considered essential for celebrating Christmas. Again, families will pre-order and/or wait in long lines to bring one home. After the 25th, you’ll see the cakes impressively discounted, which has given rise to a cringe-worthy analogy to women. Women, like Christmas cakes, are best (to marry) before 25, after that they’re more difficult to sell.
In the eyes of many Westerners, Christmas in Japan seems trivial and commercial. This is not entirely surprising given that it’s an adopted holiday and the religion behind it has little significance. Where Japanese culture best shines with warmth and meaning is on New Year’s, but again, that can be explained later.