It would probably be more accurate to say that Christmas is observed rather than celebrated in Japan. Obviously very few Japanese are Christians who celebrate the religious aspect, and they don’t generally know much about the Nativity story. However they are very much into the commercial aspect, and towns, malls and shops go out of their way to festoon themselves with lights and decorations and pump out the familiar roster of Christmas songs on endless repeat, pretty much from the moment Halloween is over.
There are no public holidays for Christmas – under the previous Emperor there was a holiday for his birthday on 23rd December but that disappeared when he abdicated. But given most foreign English teachers are from Christmas-celebrating cultures and tend to return home at that time of year, our English school closes for almost a month covering Christmas and New Year.
Some Japanese do “celebrate” Christmas to a degree – particularly those in families with children. Many of these enjoy decorating a tree in their home, the children sometimes exchange Christmas cards, and they will have a special meal either on Christmas day or the nearest weekend to it. I’m not sure how it happened – probably American influence – but the idea of eating turkey at Christmas hasn’t caught on here, and they believe the classic Christmas food to be chicken. This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by a certain famous American chain originating from Kentucky, who put on special Christmas menus and deals and (I’m told) their restaurants even take reservations for Christmas day.
Of course I felt obliged to participate in the spirit of that tradition. I also bought a big box of chocolates, because Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas if there isn’t an open box of chocolates around. The box I bought looked like Quality Street, it had most of the same chocolates as Quality Street in the same wrappers, but was made by a different company, had a similar, but different name, and didn’t taste much like British chocolate at all (there was a kind of aniseed flavour to all the chocolate). But the fillings were nice enough, once you got through the chocolate.
I had done my Christmas lessons with my students in the second week in December, aligned with all the other teachers and schools. We had two set lessons with materials provided (including a Santa hat which I may not have made full use of), but for my more advanced adult students, the lesson was more of an exploration of different Christmas traditions and where they originated.
For the younger kids, we made snowmen decorations, which were very popular! I made my own demo snowman decorated with fruit – words we teach even very young children.
Japan does have its own New Year traditions and public holidays, and most Japanese will return to their hometowns to be with their families. There are special noodles – extra-long ones – that they eat, there are special boxes of confectionery that they exchange with each other, there are traditional straw decorations they hang on their door for good fortune, and they all feel an urgent obligation to clean and tidy everything in their home before the new year arrives.
I will talk about my own New Year experiences in another blog but for now I’ll just say that the emphasis isn’t usually on the stroke of midnight, but on the first sunrise of the new year. People tend to gather at temples or at places with an easterly view. At the temples, a bell will ring in the new year, but it is a time for reverence and contemplation rather than cheering and celebration. That’s not to say that (mostly) young people won’t gather for a big old-fashioned countdown in certain popular locations, as I’ll tell you soon!
One last little intriguing nugget – the song “Auld Lang Syne” isn’t used for New Year’s Eve but you will hear the tune at closing time in many shops throughout the year as they persuade customers to finish their shopping and head to the checkout.