Christmas in Japan (for Japanese) means just two things. Christmas lights “irumineshon” and the Christmas meal with the must-have roast chicken (substitute for turkey) or Kentucky Fried Chicken and Christmas strawberry shortcake (shottokeki).
Just about everything is miniaturised in Japan, although a few shopping mall complexes try to vie for customers with large Christmas trees that reach to the ceilings.
Carols are playing everywhere, sometime with slight Japanese accents. You know you’ve been semi-naturalized when you no longer bat an eye-lid at Third Worldly, twiggy thin santas with weak and high-pitched ho ho hos! And when you begin to forget the English lyrics and sing your carols in Japanese!
Rambling aside, this issue hopes to take a serious look at holiday traditions. One Christmas in a magnificently neon-lit shopping mall where kids were giving out handbills (pamphlets) about X’mas pantomime performances, I overheard a man growl at the poor kids, “this is not the meaning of Christmas, Christmas should be a quiet family affair, not all this”. I know we always gripe about how commercialised Christmases have become but should we really fault the retail industry for their best efforts to make a living (especially there are nations of shopkeepers at stake)? Besides what parent can resist spending a few thousand yen to bring a little sparkle and wonder into the eyes of our little ones?
Nevertheless, the incident did make me think a little about how one can distil the spirit of the season. Perhaps the best way to combat the “commercialism” in the city is to not only hang Christmassy decorations, but also to try to build meaning and tradition within our homes. When my son was 1 1/2 and we went to the woods and picked what must have been a hundred pinecones, with which we made a wreath and decorated our tree. The “magic” of season stayed with my son constantly all the year round…he kept saying “I picked some pinecones YESTERDAY in the woods” (even though yesterday became yesteryears). Every year, we still try to return to woods with pine trees, and each time, the kids pick pinecones with the same enthusiasm. I also know I’ll never the forget look in his wide-eyed look he had when we turned off the lights to better enjoy the candlelight as well as our cosy Christmas story reading that first Christmas night. At a party we made a gigantic Advent calendar-style nativity storybook, and then we had twenty kids scrambling to open the doors as we told the story in both Japanese and English. We did the normal Christmassy things like the dinner, the cookies, decorations, etc. And though I can’t resist buying a couple of magazines just to see what Martha Stewart is going to come up with, but the end result at home is usually a very simple and quiet one.
Personally, I’m a person who likes change with a big C and each Christmas to be different. I have memories of some very spectacular Christmases spent in foreign lands, like the one spent in a magnificent Catholic mass in Avignon (France) and another in Macau, it gave me a sense of what the religious Christmases meant to people throughout the ages and around the world. There was the one spent around a cozy fireplace in Harrogate in the heart of England with good food and fellowship. And there were all the tropical Christmases of course. A really excellent book to snuggle up to soak up the romantic spirit of the season is “The Christmas Mystery” by Jostein Gaarder (which creatively unravels the Nativity storytelling in reverse). On the one hand, we want to do things the same, because repetition builds tradition for a household and strengthens family identity and memories. On the other, doing things different can mean a discovery of a different aspect of the season.
Whether you like doing your Christmases different or the same each year, I hope this issue will give you a number of ideas, some from our subscribers, others from the Internet or books. A few websites have done a fabulous job explaining the historical origins of practically every Christmas tradition and symbol around the world, obscure and commonplace. I was also impressed by the richness of the history behind all the Christmas traditions that I’d like to suggest a historical unit study of Christmas instead if you are putting aside your homeschool studies for the business of holidaymaking.
By SETSUKO KAMIYA
When was Christmas introduced into Japan, and how did it spread to the public?
Christmas was first observed on a very small religious scale by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries who arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century. But spreading the word about Christianity was soon banned, and thus there were few converts.
It was only from 1868 when Christmas could be openly observed, after Japan’s isolation policy ended and the door was opened to Western cultures.
In his 1999 book “Christmas: How it took root in Japan,” German Japanologist Klaus Kracht observed that Japan’s acceptance of Christmas was motivated by its desire to be accepted in international society.
In the late 19th century, upper-class Japanese were exposed to Christmas through their contact with foreigners employed by the Japanese government to provide various expertise to modernize the country. Some intellectuals who studied in Europe were also catalysts of introducing the holiday, with all of its festive trimmings: decorations, exchanging gifts and special feasts.
As modernization progressed, Kracht wrote, Christmas gradually came to be observed as a seasonal event by wealthy urbanites, and merchants were quick to seize the sales opportunity. The media also helped disseminate the Christmas celebration to a wider public.
Christmas kept a low profile during the war because of the holiday’s association with Japan’s enemies but returned with the postwar Occupation. Americans at the time used the occasion to provide charity to war orphans as well as others in need.
Eventually, as Japan climbed the economic growth ladder in the 1960s, Christmas became even more popularized and commercialized, signaling the nation’s return to international society, Kracht noted. According to him, Christmas became the festive occasion it is today starting in the 1960s.
How do Japanese in general regard Christmas?
Unlike New Year’s Day, one of the most important holidays of the year bringing families and relatives together, Christmas is not a national holiday.
Christians attend church services that are also open to any who wish to celebrate or observe Christmas in a religious way. For most Japanese, however, it is simply one of various yearend festivities, replete with special meals and gifts fueled by consumerism. Many consider Christmas Eve to be more a time of celebration than Christmas Day itself.
Christmas in Japan falls under no rules of observance, but surveys indicate more people are spending the day at home with families. About 70 percent of the 5,800 adults questioned by beverage company Kirin Holdings in November said they associate Christmas with a happy feeling where they spend time with families at home.
Some 20 percent also consider Christmas a day for couples, too. In fact, many couples regard Christmas as one of the most romantic times of the year and commercial endeavors cater greatly to this notion.
Many hotels offer Christmas overnight packages specifically targeting couples who want to spend a special night together.
Even though there are no rules, are there any typical things people do for Christmas?
According to a multiple answer questionnaire last January by the Internet survey firm My Voice Communications, 45 percent of some 10,000 respondents said they bought Christmas cakes, while 40 percent bought presents. Twenty-nine percent had some kind of Christmas decorations in their homes, and 25.8 percent said they had a party at home. More than 20 percent prepared Christmas dinner at home. But 26 percent said they did nothing special.
What are popular Christmas feasts?
Many Japanese will likely have special Christmas cakes and roast chicken, along with champagne and sparkling wine, several surveys show.
Unlike fruitcakes in some countries or puddings in others, a typical Christmas cake in Japan is a light sponge affair covered with whipped cream and decorated with strawberries and other toppings. They are bought in whole instead of in slices.
Confectioner Fujiya Co. is said to have popularized Christmas cakes in the 1950s, but Fujiya spokeswoman Hiroko Ueda said the success was also backed by technical advances.
Before the 1960s, Ueda said, sponge cakes had butter cream icing that did not require refrigeration. However, most households had a refrigerator by the late 1960s, so butter cream gave way to whipped cream. Strawberries that can be harvested year-round also became a Christmas cake mainstay.
Because of the Christmas demand, domestic poultry sales annually peak in December, according to the Japan Chicken Association. In fact, Kentucky Fried Chicken Co. spokesman Naoyuki Oishi said the firm’s Christmas sales comprise 20 percent of annual sales.
Oishi said KFC’s campaign in Japan in the early 1970s helped spread the idea of eating fried chicken on Christmas.
He noted there is an in-house legend that an American ordered several pieces of chicken to go from a Tokyo KFC outlet around Christmas 1971 or 1972. The customer said the family would have to settle for chicken because it was hard to find turkey in Japan.
“We believe it captured the hearts of many Japanese who thought American culture was cool,” he said.
Do Japanese children believe in Santa Claus?
In general, yes. Japanese kids generally believe that Santa Claus will bring them presents if they are good and are asleep when he comes. Parnets often will find out through conversations what their children want for Christmas, while some children also write letters to Santa.
When they wake up on Christmas Day, children might find the presents by their pillows instead of under Christmas trees, but this varies by family. But for most households, Santa Claus is unlikely to come down the chimney because most homes do not have a fireplace. Parents have to figure out where Santa gets in.
What are popular Christmas gifts? How much are people willing to spend for them?
According to a survey by toy maker Bandai Co. in November, computer game software tops the list again this year for the sixth consecutive time.
Among the 2,000 parents with children ranging in age from newborns to 12 who were surveyed, 535 favored game software. Most respondents of this answer had kids older than 6. Bandai said this is largely due to the popularity of computer hardware such as Nintendo‘s DS and Wii and the Sony PlayStation 3.
For younger kids, toys based on animation character Anpanman are also popular. Other favorites include books, computer game hardware, clothes and stuffed toys. Parents were willing to spend an average of ¥7,200 for their Christmas presents.
Adults also look forward to receiving gifts from their partners. Surveys show that accessories tops women’s wish lists, while wristwatches and clothes rank high on men’s wish lists. According to Kirin’s survey, adults are willing to spend an average of ¥13,100 for presents this year.
Howstuffworks.com – If you are going to make only one stop to know about the history and trivia, background of Christmas, this site will tell you everything you need to know about Christmas. Concise, well-presented and researched site, but does not cover all Christmas traditions.
A Religious Christmas… as the name suggests, St John’s Lutheran
Church in Wisconsin presents Christmas…including beautiful art panel pictures related to Christmas stories.
for interesting reading at christmas-day.com
Christmas angels discusses the symbolism.
Christmas traditions including wassailing.
Christmas resources (among other holidays) from the American Montessori Consulting newsletter
Here are some seriously good unit study sites on Christmas:
This unit site by German-American Teaching Resources is really impressive, it comes complete with online diagrams on how to make Advent House and Advent Wreath projects.
MomCaroe introduces the nativity scene to your children and includes
Visit the Holiday Happening Website at the ASIJ website or call (0422)34-5300 if you’re interested in the Holiday Happening event of the American School (ASIJ) A
one-day fund-raising and community-building event on the school’s main
campus in Chofu when the ASIJ campus turns into a festive Holiday
TRAVEL AGENTS(all with fluent English speakers; they will mail you tickets
and accept payment by furikomi):
GS Travel Disclaimer: My recommendation is only good on the service provided but not on the fiscal reliability of the firm, please use these agents at your own risk.
If you must have a white Christmas, be sure there’ll be snow somewhere in Japan. Many Japanese fly north to Hokkaido or head for Aomori or Nigata prefectures for snowfilled fun activities. If you’re wondering which ski slopes to hit, try this website: Skijapanguide.com
Info includes individual ski resort reviews, locations and how to get there, online booking of hotel rooms, English ski lessons and online Q&A and even daily weather and ski condition updates. Outdoorjapan.com isn’t a bad resource either.
Gunma Holiday Recommendations:
Stay in Gunma for snowy activities, see here and for the Manzatei onsen experience here, for the Kahiwaya Ryokan’s Shima onsen experience here , for a skiing experience try Pensions Currants or Chalet la Neige or Kusatsu Now Resort (European style) or Naraya (also at Kusatsu-machi, access via Karuizawa station, but Japanese style).
Visit Marunuma and Suganuma Lakes – formed as a result of the eruption of Mt. Nikko-shirane, these dammed-up lakes are now brim-full of deep blue wate. Situated along National Route 120, which takes motorists to Nikko, the lakes are a refreshingly cool resort even at the height of summer. A camping site is available on the banks of Lake Sugenuma, while the banks of Lake Marunuma also offer accommodation in the form of onsen inns. Hotsprings nearby, walks around Marunuma lake, hiking, white water rafting, mountain biking activities are possible during some seasons) American breakfast and dinner. Possible to drive to Nikko National Park nearby. For a list of camping sites here.Accommodation at Nikko, click here.
Nikko is generally recommended for viewing the fall colours, and the attractions: Lake Chuzenji – a popular angling and rowboating spot; Kegon-no-taki Falls – The stream originates at Lake Chuzenji and cascades over a huge horseshoe chasm, producing a constant rainbow; Yomeimon – This historic 36-foot “Gate of Sunlight” is alive with 400 gilt polychrome carvings depicting giraffes, lions, dragons, birds, flowers and phoenixes – to name a few; Nikko Botanical Garden with over 3,000 varieties of plants, including indigenous wildflowers.
However for kids there’s still more…the Tobu World Square and Western Village attractions there: The Tobu World Square has exquisite replicas of many of the famous places in the world including the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Egypt, Eiffel Tower, famous European castles and cathedrals, and many more. There are reproductions of parts of Tokyo and New York City, complete with moving trains, vehicles, the Pacific Ocean and all manner of ships and boats. It’s a must-see for the family! The Western Village is Hollywood’s cowboy town transported to Japan, with bang-bang shows and horserides. We liked best the train rides on an authentic big black locomotive that ran around a lovely little Mexican-style village. Access: Take the Tobu line to Nikko if you don’t drive. For skiing at Nikko, try Edelweiss Ski Resort or Nikko Shobugahama Skiing Ground – Features one triple lift, ski rental shop, free parking, noodle and curry rice corner. Its gentle slopes are perfect for beginners and small children. Read more information on Nikko’s attractions and accommodation at this Japan Times article.
Aquariums and zoos usually make good trips in the wintertime.
The Kasai Rinkai Seaside Park (located at JR Kasai Rinkai Stn on the Keiyo line from Tokyo Stn) is great not only in summer but in winter you can visit the aquarium too. Good displays of sunfish (these magnificent fish that don’t
seem to navigate without tails) and sharks, etc. Starfish petting and a shop that sells some neat stuff. If you’re up to it go to the bird sanctuary viewing house and you can purchase there a Bird Guide in English to all the birds seen in Japan.
Christmas fruitcake anybody?
Traditional fruitcake recipes here
One Christmas favorite of mine is the fruit cake and other goodies
available at Sanmi market in Ginza. It is a discount shop, despite its
location, offering spirits and packaged foods, granolas, canned goods,
fresh cheeses and lots of sweets! From the main crossing in Ginza, walk
two blocks toward the Kabuki Theatre, you’ll pass Tully’s Coffee and
McDonalds, then turn left. It’s up half a block on your right. Just around
the corner to the left is Starbucks Coffee. –Kat
Editor’s Note: Living in Japan means we can be scrambling to find things
at a reasonable cost, be it good books or board games,etc…Please DO
share your resources, catalogs or rave about a new website ESPECIALLY if
you live outside Tokyo since such info is scarce. All contributions will
help build up the Resource Appendix that goes out with every newsletter,
including this one.
More Christmas Links:
Salty’s Christmas Chronicles
Salty’s Christmas Chronicles THE ORIGIN OF THE NATIVITY
SET. The word “creche” is French for crib http://www.christmasbythesea.ns.ca/popup.htm
Tom R. Oh!
… The Christmas Tree Chronicles and other delightfully
twisted tales… For recent articles, click here. …
Santa’s Net: Christmas Traditions around the world:
How “Merry Christmas” is said in different countries. …
Advent Calendar from About.com
Debbie’s Unit Factory … learn all about traditions around the world and much, much more.
Education World … Christmas Celebration. Christmas Chronicles comprehensive site that looks at customs, traditions and superstitions from around the world; also has jokes, fun …
A CHRISTMAS READING LIST(* – recommended and available at Amazon.com):
For young adults:
“The Christmas Mystery” by Jostein Gaarder***.
“Origami for Christmas” by Chiyo Araki, Akihiko Tokue (Photographer), Lillian Oppenheimer (Designer)
How about a Japanese-flavored Christmas… origami flowers, nativity scenes, Santa and his reindeer. Clear, easy to follow diagrams, will challenge beginners and has terrific plans for the more experienced folder.
“175 Easy-To-Do Christmas Crafts” by Sharon Dunn Umnik (Editor)
“Christmas Crafts and Entertaining: Fun Projects & Gifts plus Great Recipes”
The book contains over 80 easy-to-make ideas, a combination of recipes, decorating ideas and quick craft projects. Covers a wide range of difficulty levels-from simple stencils to more complicated projects, like quilted placemats. Contains decorating craft ideas ideas for everything from the front door to the table, such as wreaths, table linens, centerpieces and other festive accessories.
“Christmas Crafts : Merry Things to Make” by Colleen Van Blaricom (Editor), Anita Louise (Illustrator)
Easy-to-follow directions explain how to make Christmas crafts from everyday items–such as jingle bells from an egg carton, angels from tissue paper and Santa Claus’s cottage from frosting.
“Christmas Fun : Great Things to Make and Do” by Deri Robins, Maggie Downer (Illustrator),
“Just 24 Days Till Christmas” by Mylinda Butterworth
For those who hanker after an old-fashioned Christmas, A book for all ages which delivers an activity, a story and recipe for each of the 24 days before Christmas. Include everything from Day 1’s sweet-smelling home-made Christmas cards to Day 14’s rag angels and Milky Way cake. Day 12 yields a 3-D Christmas mobile, followed on Day 18 by an art project. Numerous stories such as Hidden Treasures and The Night Before Christmas throughout the days and nights leading up to Christmas.
“Old-Fashioned Christmas Favorites : A Heart-Warming Collection of Treasured Recipes, Memories, Handmade Gifts, Cozy Decorating Tips & Easy How To’s” by Jo Ann Martin, Vickie Hutchins, Sharyn Rosart
Gooseberry Patch is a name that epitomizes the festive warmth of the traditional country Christmas. The best-loved recipes, crafts, and memories of Gooseberry Patch in one full-color volume.
“Ultimate Christmas” by Jane Newdick
Amazon.com’s choice for Christmas this year. Stunning photographs of 100 classic and inventive ideas for decorations for home and hearth.
Complete recipes for 4 international meals plus appetizers, and a large selection of desserts. Covers all aspects of decorating for the big day: choosing and trimming the tree, making wreaths and garlands, designing lighting effects, adorning the mantelpiece, producing handmade wrapping and cards, and setting a spectacular table.
For kids :
“Were They Wise Men or Kings? A Book of Christmas Questions! by Joseph J Walsh
“The Nutcracker” by Janet Schulman***
“The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg(Illustrator)***
“A Certain Small Shepherd” by Rebecca Caudill
“A Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats***
“Snowflake Bentley” by Jacqueline Briggs*** (Pair “Snowflake Bentley reading with a visit to the Snowflake Bentley website URL: http://snowflakebentley.com/snowflakes.htm as well as this great online guide on snowcrystals. Your children will learn a lot about how different flakes are formed, geometric shapes, and the physics behind snowflake formation.)
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian-Cash Menotti, Roger Duvoisin
“An Old-Fashioned Christmas” by Paul Engle
“Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson, Judith Gwyn Brown (Ill.)*
“Christmas In The Manger” by Nola Buck (Ill Felicia Bond) A Pat-and Peek Book *(baby-toddler)
“Christmas Is a Birthday” by Aline Cunningham
“Christmas Is A Time of Giving” by Joan Walsh Anglund *
“Christmas Is Love” by Joan Walsh Anglund *
“Christmas Star” by Marcus Pfister (for babies and toddlers)
“Christmas Traditions & Legends : Traditions and Legends” by Doris C. Baines, Richard Ferguson (Ill)*
“Christmas Stories” by Charles Dickens
“Eloise at Christmastime” by Kay Thompson Hilary Knight (Ill.)
“Garlands for Christmas” by Chad Walsh
“Gingerbread Baby” by Jan Brett(Illustrator)***
“How Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr Suess *
“Little Drummer Boy” by Ezra Jack Keats **
“Journey To Bethlehem” by Dorothy Van Woerkom
“Maurice Sendak’s Christmas Mystery/Full-Color Book of Clues and Jigsaw Puzzle” (baby-preschool)
“Mr Willowby’s Christmas Tree” by Robert Barry **
“Nine Days to Christmas” by Marie Hall Ets, Aurora Labastida
“Silent Night” by Armand Eisen, Mary Engelbreit (exquisite pop-out art)*
“Small Rain” by Jessie Orton Jones (ill. Elizabeth Orton Jones)
“Something for Christmas” by Palmer Brown
“Take Joy” by Tasha Tudor *
“The Bird’s Christmas Carol” by Kate Douglas Wiggin**
“The Christmas Cookie Tree” by Ruth Hershey Irwin
“The First Christmas” by Robbie Trent, ill. Marc Simont * (baby-toddler)
“The Gift of the Magi” by O’ Henry **(older children-teens)
“The Hat” by Jan Brett(Illustrator)**
“The Legend of the Poinsettia” by Tomie De Paola (Ill.)**
“The Lion In A Box” by Marguerite De Angeli *
“The Night Before Christmas” : Poem by Clement Clarke Moore, Jan Brett (Ill.)***
“The Night Before Christmas” by Clement C Moore (Ill. James Rice/Tasha Tudor/Arthur Rackham/Hague)*
“The Shepherd’s Boy” by Mae Vander Boom
“The Silver Box” by Martha Rush Henry, Sue Thompson-Norman*
“The Sweet Smell of Christmas”
“The Story of Christmas” by Jane Ray **
“The Story of the Christ Child” by Leon Morris
“The 12 Days of Christmas” (My Big Beanstalk Books Series) by Jerry Harston, Jerry Hartson**
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” by Jan Brett(Illustrator)***
“The Way Christmas” Came by Masahiro Kasuya OOP
“The Very Special Baby” by Carol Woodward OOP
“The Wild Christmas Reindeer” by Jan Brett**
“Twas the Moon of Wintertime” by Foz Abisch
“White Snow Bright Snow” by Alvin Tresselt, ill. Roger Duvoisin **
Originally published for
HOMESCHOOLING/AFTERSCHOOLING IN JAPAN NEWSLETTER – ISSUE #003 (DECEMBER 1999)