From Romantic Christmas Eves to Family-Centric New Year Celebrations
Japan isn’t a Christian nation, so Christmas isn’t a public holiday, but the Japanese do celebrate it. Despite its Western origins, Christmas in Japan is more of a romantic occasion for the young, and occasionally, there are small gifts for children.
Young Japanese couples often go out on Christmas. Some might see a film, while others might visit an amusement park or their favourite café for a chat, before heading to a posh restaurant for a lavish meal and exchanging gifts. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s much like Valentine’s Day.
For many married and unmarried couples in Japan, Christmas isn’t a religious holiday, but they relish it as the premier romantic event of the year. With the town lit up in festivity, beautiful decorations lining the streets, and every shop selling gifts and cakes, everyone seems to find a date.
For those without a date at Christmas, we even have a slang term, “Kuri-bocchi”, derived from “kurisumasu” (Christmas) and “-bocchi” meaning “alone”, so it translates to “alone on Christmas”. Most universities are already on their winter break, so many students take short trips from the 24th to make it special, ironically unaware of the Biblical teaching, “God wants you to be holy and to avoid sexual sins.”
We typically celebrate on the 24th, not the 25th, as the Japanese view Christmas Eve as the true sacred night. This might stem from childhood memories of Christmas —— for children, the 24th of December is a magical night. On this day, the Japanese have Christmas cake and roast chicken, and Santa Claus comes to town and to your bedroom. Yes, I bedroom, not living room, because he places a gift beside your pillow. It was beside the pillow in my hometown, but it seems different regions have their own traditions regarding where Santa Claus leaves presents. This might be because many Japanese families don’t actually set up and decorate a Christmas tree. Without a tree, there’s no “under the tree”.
In my house, we had a faux plastic Christmas tree about 3 feet tall. We placed it beside our household Shinto altar. It’s a humorous illustration of how we don’t view Christmas as a religious event; we simply enjoy it as a fun occasion during the year, and I have never met a Japanese person who attend church on Christmas day. Instead, on New Year’s, the week following Christmas, we visit religious sites, either shrines or temples or both, to pray for the upcoming year.
Whilst we enjoy Christmas, New Year’s is the traditional religious holiday. Most people have time off work for New Year’s, typically from the 31st of December to the 3rd of January. The first three days of the new year are special and are known as Sanganichi (三箇日). We gather with our families and relatives, savour traditional food and games, and attend sales at department stores. It’s much like Christmas and Boxing Day combined. Those living away from their families often return to their hometowns, making this season one of the priciest times to purchase a plane ticket.
On the 31st of December, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times on New Year’s Eve, and as we listen to the chimes, we welcome the new year. The number is derived from the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, where there are 36 types of Kleshas (mental states that cloud and corrupt the human mind). This number is multiplied by three, representing past lives, our current life, and future lives. The bells are rung 108 times to dispel the Kleshas from all phases of our existence.
On New Year’s Day, we visit Shinto shrines, which originate from Japan’s indigenous ancient religion. Some might find it odd that Japan celebrates New Year’s with customs from two religions, but we do. Today, we pray at shrines for our health, success, safety, and more, to the Kami, the deities of Shinto. We purchase amulets based on our prayers. For instance, if you drive frequently, you might buy a road safety amulet to display in your car window. Or you might wish to acquire one for love if there’s someone special in your life, or one for safe childbirth if you’re expecting. If you have a fervent dream you wish to realise, you can also buy an Ema (絵馬), inscribe your wish on it, and hang it in the shrine. And we do all this especially on New Year’s.
On the 1st of January, we also partake in a traditional meal called Osechi (お節). It’s a combination of various dishes presented in a tiered set of boxes. Osechi comprises around 40 different dishes, and people opt to prepare some based on their tastes or the availability of ingredients in their region. Each dish has its own significance, much like every Christmas decoration does. For example, Baked Sea Bream symbolises “joy” as “bream” in Japanese is “tai”, which sounds like “medetai”, meaning joyous. Another example is herring roe, representing the prosperity of descendants because the cluster of roe is vast, even in a single bite.
Tokyo is vast, and even after living here for six years, there are countless places I’ve yet to explore, with new spots always emerging. But that’s what I adore about Tokyo. Sanganichi is the only time I ever feel a hint of boredom in Tokyo since most attractions are closed. But on reflection, that’s not necessarily a downside. Life in Tokyo is perpetually bustling; the world seems to move at breakneck speed with endless activities. However, it’s during New Year’s that Tokyo residents can truly relax and find peace.