――Christmas in Japan is considered a romantic event, while New Year’s is a time of family gathering
My first long term experience abroad was when I was eighteen, in Montréal, Canada. I spent one month there during the winter, staying at the home of a québécois family. Everything fascinated me; from the french style cheek kissing, to the old city covered in snow, to skating on the frozen lake. Although blizzarding temperatures outside reached as low as -15℃ (5 degrees in Fahrenheit), I was surprised to find that inside the house it was warm and cozy. Canadian houses are much warmer than Japanese houses because they have special heaters and building technique. Everything was just totally different. But the most interesting differences I found have to do with the culture of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations compared with how Japan celebrates them. From a western perspective the surprises might be reversed, so I would like to share a little about the Japanese version of these holidays.
Japan is not a Christian country, thus, it is not a national holiday, but we do celebrate Christmas. Despite the western origins, Christmas in Japan is more of a romantic event for the young, and yes, occasionally some small gifts for children. Japanese young couples almost always go out on Christmas. Some might go to see movies, while others might go to an amusement park or to their favorite café to chat, and then they’ll move on to a fancy restaurant to eat an extravagant meal, and they’ll exchange gifts. Sound familiar? I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it’s exactly like Valentine’s day! For most unmarried people in Japan, Christmas is not a religious holiday, but they enjoy it as the biggest romantic event of the year. With the town alight in festivity, beautiful decorations adorning the streets and every shop selling gifts and cake, everyone seems to find a date.
For those who don’t have a date during Christmas we even have a slang word “Kuri-bocchi”, which comes from “kurisumasu(Christmas)” and “-bocchi” meaning “alone”, so alone on Christmas. Most Universities are already on their winter vacation, so many college students go on small trips from the 24th to make it special, ironically not knowing the Bible teaching “God wants you to be holy and to stay away from sexual sins.”
We typically do all these activities on the 24th, not the 25th, because we consider Christmas Eve to be the true holy night. In fact, many couples don’t even spend the 25th together. I guess this comes from the childhood memory of Christmas culture in Japan. For all the children, December 24th is a magical night. On the 24th we eat Christmas cake and roast chicken, and Santa Claus is coming to town and to your bedroom. Yes, I mean bedroom, not living room because he puts a gift next to your pillow. It was next to your pillow in my hometown, but it seems that different regions adopted different places where Santa Claus leaves gifts, so it’s different for each family. It may be because most Japanese families don’t actually put up and decorate a Christmas tree. If there is no Christmas tree, there is no “under the tree”. However, Japanese people were introduced to the Christmas culture along with gift-giving, so Santa Claus puts the gifts next to children’s pillows.
In my home we had a fake plastic Christmas tree about 3 feet high. I enjoyed decorating it in my childhood and we’d even put next to our household Shinto altar. It’s a funny example of how we do not consider Christmas a religious event; we simply enjoy it as one of the fun events during the year. We also don’t go to church unless we’re Christian. Instead, on New Year’s, the week after Christmas, we actually do go to a religious location, shrines or temples or both, to make a prayer for the coming year.
While we enjoy Christmas, New Year’s is the traditional religious holiday. Most people get days off from work on New Year’s, usually starting December 31st and ending January 3rd. The first three days of the new year are special and are called Sanganichi. We meet with our families and relatives, enjoy traditional food and plays, and go to discount sales at department stores. It’s a lot like Christmas and Boxing Day. People living away from their families often go back to their hometown, so this season is one of the most expensive times of the year to buy a plane ticket.
On the 31st of December, Buddhist temples ring the bells on New Year’s Eve 108 times, and, while hearing the sounds of bells, we greet the new year. The number comes from the Buddhist tradition of reincarnation, in which there are 36 kinds of Kleshas (mental states making human minds unwholesome and clouded). 36 multiplied with three lives: those we have lived, the life we live now, and the lives we will live in the future. The bells are rung 108 times to dispel the Kleshas in all times of our life.
On New Years Day, we go to Shinto shrines which were constructed from the endemic or native religion from ancient Japan. Some of you might think it’s weird that Japan celebrates New Year’s with the customs of two religions, but we do. When Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the 6th century, there were fights among the Japanese whether to accept it or not. Eventually Japan did, but uniquely mixed the aspects of both religions. Today, we pray in shrines for our health, success, security and so on, to the Kami, the deities of Shinto, and we buy amulets according to your prayer. If, for example, you drive a lot, you might buy a road safety amulets to put in the window of your car. Or you may want to get one for the fulfilment of love if there is someone in your heart, or get one for safe childbirth if you are expecting. If you have a strong dream you want to achieve, you can also buy a votive picture of a horse, in which you write your wish, and hang it in the shrine. And we do all this especially on New Years.
On the 1st of July, we also eat a traditional meal called Osechi. It’s a combo of several kinds of dishes packed into a sort of nest of boxes. Osechi has about 40 different kinds of dishes and people choose to cook some of them depending on their preference or availability of ingredients in the region they are living. Each dish has its own meaning just like every Christmas decoration has. For instance, Baked Sea Bream means “joyous” since bream is called “tai” in Japanese and it sounds similar to “medetai”, which means joyous. Another example is herring roes which are for the prosperity of descendants because the block of roes is enormous in number, even in a single bite.
To have fun during this time, I liked the Japanese style kite the most. It used to be only something the aristocrats did, but later it became popular among commoners in the Edo period as a prayer for good health or just for fun. If you are good at sports with rackets, Hagoita is really fun. It is similar to badminton, but more difficult since the area of the racket is smaller. The rackets are made of wood, and if you can play long enough, it makes the most delightful sounds.
Tokyo is big, and even having lived here for six years there are too many places I have never been to, and there are always new places to visit for the first time. But that’s what I love about Tokyo. Sanganichi is the only the time I ever get bored in Tokyo because all the visitable places are closed. But if you think about it that’s not really a bad thing. Living in Tokyo it is constantly busy, the world seems to be running too fast, and too many things are going on. Nevertheless, it is during New Year’s that the Tokyoite can feel relaxed from the bottom of their hearts.