Christmas. That time of the year when festive carols are heard everywhere and you simply can not escape the decorations no matter where you go. This rings true in Japan as well, a country which is more famous for being nonreligious by choice than most countries around the globe.
As Japan is a quirky fusion of traditional values and Americanism so is Christmas time most interesting and full of surprises to a Westerner experiencing it. From all the Christmas songs, abundant festive decorations and everything surrounding the Western idea of Christmas one might be surprised to find out that Christmas is not exactly Christmas in Japan.
The biggest difference is that Christmas is not a public holiday in Japan. People work throughout what us Westerners consider the three most important days of Christmas: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
A small stroke of luck perhaps is the fact that the Emperor’s birthday happens to be December 23rd which makes it a public holiday. I dare say Japanese people are much more enthusiastic about their Emperor’s birthday speech than the entire idea of Christmas. This of course makes perfect sense as most Japanese people have no religion nor are they interested in them.
What I personally find curious is that Christmas Eve is considered a nationwide date night for couples in Japan. On Christmas Eve couples spend the day together instead of hanging out with family or friends. I wonder how this modern tradition has come to be a part of average Japanese’s Christmas celebrations!
For Westerners Christmas food is an essential part of the season. If you are spending Christmas in Japan do not expect feasts or presents wrapped in reindeer gift paper either for that matter. Families usually buy a “Christmas cake” from a bakery or a supermarket and eat that together as a tradition. The Christmas cake is just an average sponge cake with whipped cream and possibly some decorations – in fact it looks more like a birthday cake than a Christmas treat.
A very quirky fact might also be that most Japanese people buy a bucket of KFC’s for Christmas Day. No, I can not explain this. Some say it is due to a very successful KFC campaign in the 1970’s.
Presents are usually not exchanged either during Christmas. This might partially be due to the fact that on New Year’s Day family members traditionally exchange presents. In fact New Year is far more important in Japan than Christmas. Whereas Christmas for Japanese people is a second-rate non-holiday New Year is full of traditions, meanings, special foods and customs. Most companies lavish their employees with long holidays during the New Year period and vast majority of the country will get together with their families.
It is safe to say that though Christmas is not a thing in Japan New Year is the most festive season in the land of the rising sun. For those who are traveling in Japan around New Year’s beware of closed shops and attractions, holiday schedules and increased prices.
Happy Year of the Dog!