Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas in Japan - not all that different?

I have absolutely no idea what comes to mind when you think of Christmas in Japan, but you might think of a country with no long Christian tradition, thus meaning that it's nothing at all like back home, right? Well - yes and no. Yes, it's different in that it's not a national holiday so people still work, and it's not the big family holiday that it is back home. It's not common to give everyone presents, and the whole thing is sort of like Valentine's Day, only with a cake. Incidentally, it used to be common to call unmarried women over the age of 25 "Christmas cakes" since the day after Christmas all the leftover cakes are priced half-off... it has since become not that unusual to see older unmarried women, so now it's probably more like 30 or 35 or so. Maybe they should start calling it like osechi or something... cool, that even sounds sorta dirty!

But digressing, there are a bunch of similarities as well, especially in my part of the country. You see, Japanese people have really latched on to the more superficial aspects of Christmas: they love Christmas carols, the lights, Santa, and Christmas trees. I found a bunch of Christmas cards in the big stationary/card place in town with no problem. You can even buy Santa suits and decorations at the 100¥ store if you really want to, but you get what you pay for if you know what I mean. Christmas cookies, cakes, all that stuff.

Sendai in particular is quite well known for its annual Pageant of Starlight, in which all the main streets are brilliantly lit up between the 12th and 31st of the month of December as can be seen in the picture to the right. People decorate their own houses with Christmas trees and lights - a - plenty. Everywhere you go, including my own Kokusaimura, everyone's wishing people a Merry Christmas and looking festive. "But wait", you say, "that's only the commercialized aspect of Christmas!" Exactly.

And that's exactly why I say in many ways it's just like back home. Commercialism has taken over Christmas and distorted the whole meaning of the holiday, and that's just as true here as it is back home. Nowadays, what most people are worried about is giving off the appearance of Christmas and getting good gifts from friends and family. Look at things like the notorious "Black Friday" - the shopping day from hell. Do people usually look very happy when they're out shopping like this? No - it must be done. Have they ever thought that maybe you don't have to get someone that new PS3 or whatever in order for their kids to enjoy the holidays? Unheard of - kids will complain if they're the only ones that don't have one. I'm no different - as a kid I looked forward to getting oodles of presents more than anything else and didn't once think about the whole concept of the "spirit of giving" or any of that. At least I knew the whole back story of it celebrating Jesus' birth and didn't associate it with Santa really, but Japanese people know of the religious back story as well. And similar to a goodly portion of Americans, they latch onto the secular traditions as opposed to the religious ones because they aren't practicing Christians and it has no meaning to them.

So although it was known of and although there were a small number of Christian Japanese beforehand, Christmas didn't really gain popularity in Japan until post-WWII during the period of US Occupation between 1945-1952. Basically you could say that Japanese only know Christmas as well as they've learned from us, which leads me to postulate that they picked up all the commercialism as it already existed in the US. So in terms of commercialism, Christmas to me is the same here as it is back home
. The thing I definitely miss the most out here though is spending time with family and friends, which will never be replaced. I miss people the most this time of year, so don't forget about me!!

Oh, and just as another little factoid regarding Christmas, do you know how the day December 25th was picked?
The early Christian church did not celebrate Jesus’ birth, and therefore the exact date had not been preserved in festivals. The first recorded mention of December 25 is in the Calendar of Philocalus (354 A.D.) which assumed Jesus’ birth to be Friday, December 25, 1 A.D. When the Emperor Constantine eventually declared Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the Edict of Toleration in 312 A.D., the persecuted Christians exchanged the rags of hiding for the silks of the court. The predictable expediency to adopt the inevitable cultural changes caused many of the former pagan rituals to be adapted to their new “Christian” trappings. The date of December 25th, which was officially proclaimed by the church fathers in 440 A.D., was actually a vestige of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, observed near the winter solstice, which itself was among the many pagan traditions inherited from the earlier Babylonian priesthood.
So December 25th corresponding to Jesus' birth is in fact basically the excuse the Romans gave to the Christian world to celebrate the winter solstice with them. Some people think the real birth took place around January 6th, and those following Eastern Christianity still celebrate Christmas at this time. Some other theologians insist that known facts point to a birth in the spring sometime, but no one knows for sure.

One last parting thing that used to always bother my mom:
Christmas is sometimes shortened to Xmas, an abbreviation that has a long history. In early Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter Χ (chi), is the first letter of Christ (Χριστός). Since the mid-sixteenth century Χ, or the similar Roman letter X, was used as an abbreviation for Christ.
And with that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas season and urge you all to do something truly Christmasy. Give someone something for no reason. Volunteer your time to someone. Help people. Also, if you have the chance to spend the holidays with family then feel privileged - I wish I could have the pleasure. Unfortunately, oft times family's really one of those things you don't miss until it's gone. So on your mark, get set, Christmas!

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