Ah! Christmas! It’s that time of the year where streets light up, snow starts falling, families gather and start singin’ songs, making delicious meals, eating (lots of) delicious treats… It’s the most beautiful time of the year! Ever wondered what it’s like in Japan? Let’s find out!
Probably the first Christmas appearance you might notice in your hometown are the illuminations in the streets. Whenever comes the end of November and I notice Christmas lights in the streets, my mood always brightens up because I know… Winter… I mean… Christmas is coming…
Well in Japan (I’m mostly going to be referring to big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka…) they’re not going soft on the illuminations. If you look at a few pictures of Tokyo during the holiday season you’ll understand. The streets are bright as day and the lights set you in the mood for some Christmas celebrating. It looks really cool!
Pictures say it all :
They put on light shows, animations in the streets, and these kind of stuff can be more easily pictured in video. So here is a 12 minutes long video showing some illuminations in Tokyo :
Now, when you think about Christmas, you’re probably already picturing yourself with family and relatives on the 24th of December, joking around the family table serving everybody a piece of turkey or something. Well in Japan, Christmas eve is not spent with your family but rather with lovers. In Japan, Christmas evokes a romantic evening to people and a romantic date in a restaurant. More like Valentine’s Day, kinda.
The menu, that also is another story. At home here in France, we usually eat stuff like Foie Gras, Turkey, what we call « bûche de Noël » (it’s a Christmas ice cake basically)… Usually fancy and more expensive stuff than usual. Well in Japan… They eat fried chicken. But not any fried chicken, no! Kentucky Fried Chicken! Now of course I’m not stating that all Japanese people eat KFC on Christmas Eve, but fried chicken is kind of the meal of choice during this holiday and KFC seems to be on the popular trend. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself in Japan on Christmas Eve and you see people eating that kind of stuff, it’s how the Japanese roll!
So as in any western country, Japanese people put a Christmas Tree in their house because it’s awesome. But something I found funny and that kind of surprised me is that once Christmas has passed, so right after the 25th of December, they take the tree down. The reason seems to be that once Christmas day has passed, Christmas season is over and the festivities are now oriented towards New Year’s and so the Christmas Tree does not belong anymore. And this kind of confused me because, in my very personal opinion, Christmas and New Year’s are totally related! And the ambiance and all the festivities that take place during the holiday season go along extremely well and it makes a mix of feasts that just take you to another dimension for a few weeks. Anyway, I found this feature to be quite interesting because of the fact that it’s completely different from where I live where we keep the Tree until almost the end of January (although that might only be in my household ‘cause I insist on keeping it, but still!).
In Japan, although this isn’t very unusual, people bake Christmas cakes, which are themed decorated cakes. Often short cakes, these are very popular and look pretty cool!
So in most western countries, in most cases, shops and businesses close on Christmas Day. In France no one is working at all on Christmas Day. But in Japan that is absolutely not the case. Shops keep doing business and Christmas Day used to be the most crowded day in shops. Given that Christmas does not hold such a heavy weight on society in Japan compared to western, and that Japanese don’t take much days off, it’s not so surprising.
Also, in Sapporo, they have this awesome snow festival (雪祭り, yuki-matsuri) where people build gigantic snow sculpture and it looks gorgeous!
How about a little history of how and when Christmas came to be in Japan?
So it is said that the beginning of Christmas in Japan was in 1552, when missionary Francis Xavier gathered people in Yamaguchi-ken on the 24th of December to perform a mass in a Catholic church.
Then around 1560 in Kyoto, a group of about a hundred people gathered to celebrate a grand kōtansai (降誕祭, celebration of great men or saints, I didn’t find a similar word in English).
However, during the Edo Shogunate (1603-1867), in 1612, Christianity was prohibited and for a time, Christmas disappeared from Japan.
But later on, during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), in 1873, the prohibition was loosened and Christmas came back to life.
In 1904, for the first time in Japan was introduced in a Meiji-ya (a grocery store) in Ginza, a Christmas Tree decorating the shop, which led to popularizing Christmas Trees in Japan.
Then in 1910, a chain of confectionery stores called Fujiya started selling Christmas decoration cakes.
It just kept going as restaurants and coffee shops started confectioning Christmas related menus and decorations.
And from there it went to being Christmas in Japan as we know it today.