Ho Ho Holidays In Japan

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.

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Christmas decorated tori gate

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.

Tis the season to share traditions with local community
Mixing cultures

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.

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People celebrating Emperor’s birthday on December 23rd

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!

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Christmas cake is a huge tradition in Japan

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.

KFC santa
Who wouldn’t think KFC makes the best Christmas food…

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.ย  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.

osechi-ryori
Japanese New Year’s meal, osechi

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!

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12 thoughts on “Ho Ho Holidays In Japan

    1. Yeah technically that’s true! I’m not sure how particular they are about the exact timing in Japan as people do celebrate Dec 31st instead of mid-Feb when it comes to new year. In China it’s obviously very important.

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      1. Well in all countries in East Asia that still have the tradition, not just China – Korea, Vietnam etc… suppose for some tradition and the astrology that is calculated on the moon cycles is important…

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      2. The moon calendar is important for farming which is why in China outside big cities no one uses the solar calendar, only the lunar one.
        I wouldn’t know about other SE Asian countries, but as I’ve lived in China I know a bit about them.

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      3. Really? Did you live in a big city? It’s definitely more important than the solar calendar: in my city people didn’t use the solar calendar unless they did international business.
        Btw I have been asking my Japanese friends about the NY and they all say they don’t care about the lunar calendar and as they’re concerned New Year starts on January 1st ๐Ÿ™‚

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      4. We were in Shanghai.
        Yes, the NY in Japan changed after the Meiji restoration we think, more than 130 years ago. So most Japanese probably do not have any idea about lunar new year.

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      5. That would explain it: Shanghai is probably way too international now to concentrate on lunar calendar. In other parts of China it is still very much in use. My Chinese colleagues were shocked to the bone that I did not know how to use it….
        I didn’t know the lunar calendar used to be a thing in Japan – but it makes sense since they got so many things from China centuries ago.

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      6. Yes Shanghai is a world away from the towns and cities indeed. But it is all changing now even for these “rural” areas… China is sure building up fast!
        Japan on the other hand ditched a lot of traditions in the quest for “modernity”. Quite some motivation came from watching how China was pummeled in the mid 1800s by colonial-bent powers. They promised themselves not to fall into the same situation and had the people adopt a lot of new customs – some by force!

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      7. I’m not a history expert but it seems to me that after WWII the modernization of Japan really took off.
        China… well, I lived there 2 years ago and can say that though the development might be fast but the area where I lived they have a long way to go still.

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