Christmas in Japan and Belgium

Christmas is not a traditional Japanese holiday. Only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. New Year is a lot more important in Japan and is celebrated with many traditional Japanese rituals.

But Japanese people never turn down an oportunity to have a festivity or festival, so just like Halloween and Valentine’s day, Christmas has been imported into Japanese culture. And just like they do with anything else imported from other cultures, the Japanese have adapted Christmas to their liking and invented their own ways of celebrating it (click here to go to an overview of Japanese Christmas customs by Billy Hammond).

Christmas decorations in Matsuzakaya, Toyota City

Christmas decorations in Matsuzakaya, Toyota City

But what struck me most so far is the difference in the anticipation leading up to Christmas. In Belgium, people eagerly look forward to Christmas all through the month of December. In Japan, I hardly noticed any anticipation for Christmas. December in Japan is more about forget-the-year-parties (bōnenkai) and preparing for New Year.

In Belgium, as we have long, cold and dark winters, Christmas and the month leading up to it are all about coziness, light and warmth. Some of the anticipation rituals include:

Advent wreath

Advent wreath

  • Putting a Christmas tree in the house and decorating it.
  • Making an advent wreath, either one to put on the front door or an indoor version with four candles. The first Sunday of December one candle is lit, the second Sunday two candles are lit and so on, symbolizing the return of the light after the darkest time of winter.
  • Every city puts a nativity scene on the central square. A nativity scene is an imitation of the stable where Jesus is said to be born. The nativity scene often contains live animals!
Nativity scene in Belgium

Nativity scene in Belgium - with a real live donkey in the background

  • There are bonfires and people gather around to drink warm wine or heart-warming liquor (‘jenever’).
Christmas bonfire in Belgium

Christmas bonfire in Belgium

Even though Christmas has lost its religous meaning to a lot of people in Belgium, it is still deeply embedded in our culture. Even non-religious people consciously or unconsciously keep celebrating Christmas as a means of getting through the darkest time of the year.

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This article was submitted to the J-Festa blogging festival December edition, themed ‘Christmas in Japan’.

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14 thoughts on “Christmas in Japan and Belgium

  1. Pingback: Christmas in Japan | japingu

  2. Belgium’s Christmas sounds pretty much like the one in Germany! ^-^
    So no wonder that for both of us Christmas in Japan is quite … different!!
    I miss having an Advent Calendar or an Advent Wreath!!! ^-^;

    • Yes I think Germany is perhaps the European country most similar to Belgium. I also love Advent Calendars. But I did see several of them in Japan, sold in some shops and one hanging in the home of a friend.

      Love your site by the way, very pretty.

  3. thanks for participating in the december j-festa! i would love to experience christmas in belgium (or any place in europe for that matter). christmas in australia is in the middle of summer so it is a bit weird to be singing songs about jack frost and white christmases when it is sweltering outside.

    • The cold weather (and ideally some snow) do add to the Christmas atmosphere. This year it’s a warm winter in Belgium so it was hard to get into the Christmas mood. When we came back to Toyota City today, it turns out that ironically they had a white Christmas here! All the fields were still covered in snow.

      But it also seems fun to celebrate Christmas with a nice Australian barbecue under the sun (atleast just for once).

  4. I’m from Canada, but most of my family is German. We used to do the advent wreathes and calendars every year, so I miss the lead up too. Surprisingly I saw something in Japan that looked a lot like the wreathes of Advent! They are called shimenawa.Actually you probably know them from visiting Shinto Shrines – those straw or paper ropes they have tied up and ‘on display’ out front, right? But at one of the schools I work at I was invited to make a special New Year’s version of this that was round and decorated with holly-type leaves a little berry looking ornaments. It looked like a wreath to me, but looking it up on Google now, I can see that there are many different kids of shimenawa. The link below is like what we made.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Very interesting! I didn’t know about shimenawa yet. And the one you made indeed looks like a advent wreath!

      Believe it or not but I often envy your job as a teacher. It seems to me like it gives you an extra perspective on life in Japan. It seems like a very good way to completely immerse oneself in Japanese culture.

  5. We are so about commercialism in every holiday (or non-holy) event!

    Halloween was never big here until several (or more?) years ago when perhaps someone saw a commercial opportunity. (Note that kids don’t go trick or treating.) Valentine’s has always been a different kind of “ritual” altogether.

    • Actually Christmas is getting more and more commercial in Belgium as well. I recently read in the paper that people spend almost 600 euro on Christmas gifts. That’s insane! About two weeks before Christmas, the shops start getting very crowded. A lot of people experience stress about finding the right gift and going out to buy it. This year, my family and I decided to not exchange gifts. I have to admit that it’s a bit of a relief.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I happen to be a manga reader but I
    often wondered about the Japanese way of celebrating Christmas. This celebration often figures in most mangas that I read, but I feel it’s totally different from the way Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. I’m a Roman Catholic. You’re right. Christmas Eve is celebrated like it’s Valentine’s Day.

    Cheers from California.

    • I still remember the Christmas special from Love Hina that’s all about confessing your love to someone on Christmas Eve. That was my first introduction to the way Christmas is celebrated in Japan.

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