Christmas is upon us, and soon the children will be nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums dance in their heads. The first recorded Christmas in Japan took place in 1552, when missionaries who had accompanied Francis Xavier held mass in a newly constructed church in what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture. After Japan banned Christianity after a particularly bad uprising in 1612, the only Christmas spirit you could find here were the Dutch traders celebrating the fictional holiday of "Dutch Winter Solstice" (wink-wink), plus the famous kakure Kirishitan ("hidden Christians") of Kyushu who practiced their faith in secret, often keeping statues of the Virgin Mary that had been disguised to look like Buddhist kannon instead. Christmas as a cultural event started to enter Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, with the first commercial Christmas display in a department store in 1904, and the famous confectionery company Fujiya selling Japan's first Christmas cake in 1910. Just as our modern image of Santa Claus has been influenced by mass market advertising of products like Coca-Cola, marketing played a role with in Christmas here, too. The opening of the wildly popular Tokyo Disneyland in 1983 and its annual Christmas celebrations is said to be a watershed for the cultural awareness of the holiday in Japan.
One of the major differences between Japan and the West is the way Christmas here is seen as a fun event, a time for gathering in a Christmas party with hats, fire crackers and maybe a karaoke machine, while the most solemn and holy day of the year is New Year's Day. This is contrast to the U.S., at least, where Christmas is more likely to be a quiet time spent with family and friends and New Year's is reserved for loud merry-making. For a gaijin expat living in Japan, nothing says "Christmas" like being asked to play Santa Claus and hand out presents to children (since everyone knows Santa is from America and speaks English), and I've donned the red suit and fake beard many times. At one visit to a preschool operated by a friend of ours, the kids got to ask me questions like, "Where do you live?""What is your favorite color?" and so on. One kid asked me, "Santa-san, what's your favorite food?" and I kind of freaked them out by answering "reindeer hamburger steak." Tonight, though, I'll forgo reindeer meat and eat the special Christmas Eve dinner Mrs. J-List is making, then enjoy the Christmas Cake my daughter baked. All of us at J-List sincerely wish you and your loved ones a wonderful and warm Christmas holiday this year!
A Merry Moe Christmas 2010 to everyone from J-List!