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).
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:
- 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!
- There are bonfires and people gather around to drink warm wine or heart-warming liquor (‘jenever’).
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.
This article was submitted to the J-Festa blogging festival December edition, themed ‘Christmas in Japan’.