Although it is still more than ten days to Christmas, I am posting this now, because tomorrow I am flying back to the UK for a fortnight and don’t know if I’ll be able to post anything while I’m there. I have been enjoying Advent; the waiting and the anticipation, but I have also been caught up in a storm of marking, end-of-term work and Christmas shopping. Now I have finished all my work, and I’m kind-of-packed, so I thought I’d sit down and post something.
Mid-December in Tokyo doesn’t feel like mid-December in Europe; the skies are blue almost every day, the leaves are red and yellow, and the temperature is around 10 degrees during the day, falling to around 2 or 3 degrees during the night.
Of course, Christmas is all around. That is, if Christmas to you means the same as it does to my local stores; a bucket of KFC chicken and a synthetic-looking strawberry shortcake from the 7-eleven; if your local church thinks that the perfect way to decorate the building is to do this:
Why is the cross zooming off into space? Why does that say ‘Christmas’?
My neighbours have got in on the action too, with a great variety of flashing lights on their veranda. These are the same neighbours who in summer think that if one wind chime producing a light tinkling sound is relaxing then six lined up in a row will surely amplify the relaxation, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. I’m just glad I don’t have to pay their electricity bill.
So what does Christmas mean to most Japanese people? Although people in Japan would identify predominantly as Buddhist or Shinto, there are probably between one and two million Christians of different denominations. However, there are a lot of well-known schools and universities that were founded by missionaries in the 19th century, so while there are not many people calling themselves Christian there are far more who were educated at Christian schools and so attended services or studied the Bible. In addition, Christian-style weddings held in hotels are popular; the white dress, the ‘minister’ (not always an ordained person, it could be a random foreign resident playing dress-up for his part-time job), and the chapel. I think most Japanese people have some idea what it’s all about.
However, knowing what the meaning of Christmas is and choosing how to celebrate it are quite different. In Japan, Christmas Eve is THE date night of the year. Tokyo Tower is a popular spot, with it’s twinkly lights and romantic photo opportunities. This year, Christmas Eve will be a national holiday, since December 23rd is the Emperor’s birthday and, falling on a Sunday, it gets moved to the Monday. Christmas Day will be an ordinary working day, but ask people what Christmas Day dinner should be and you will get the answer: ‘chicken’. Well done, KFC, you have quite masterfully convinced a whole country that Christmas equals vast amounts of deep-fried gristle and little pots of sweetcorn and mashed potato, or whatever it is that you sell. The persuasive campaign starts the same way every year; the Colonel Sanders mannequin, dressed as Santa, outside the shop well before Christmas. Truly, the home of Christmas deliciousness.
And what of dessert? Santa wears red, Christmassy things are often red . . . strawberries are red! Let’s eat strawberries! But, I hear you protest, strawberries are summer fruit, in winter they will be watery and tasteless, and I say: yes. But they are red, and therefore Christmassy. Strawberry shortcake must be the perfect Christmas dessert, it’s red like Christmas and white with creamy snowy goodness. Since October, my local convenience stores have had information on the wall about the Christmas cakes you can order.
This is the stereotypical Japanese Christmas experience, the almost Disneyfication of an ancient and sacred celebration but really, how many people in Europe and North America have the same approach as the Japanese?
Down the road from where I live, on Christmas Eve the local Anglican church will be packed to the rafters for the Midnight Eucharist. At school we have a nativity set, as we do every year. The crib is empty at the moment, of course, and this year I have not seen any inappropriate objects there; last year I removed a small purple dinosaur one day. We had Christmas carol practice yesterday, including my favourite original Japanese carol: Hallelujah Christmas. The title pleases me and it’s unlike any of the carols I grew up with.
Over the years I have heard foreign residents living here complain about Christmas Day being an ordinary working day, but really, that’s what it is. If you want to go to church, if you want to stop and hear the Christmas message, you have to make the time for that yourself. You have to carve out a Christmas-shaped space in your life, because no one is going to declare a national holiday, close all the shops, shut down almost all public transport and make you stop. You have to do it yourself. I have always liked that, I like it being a conscious decision. If you end up with a Christmas that doesn’t suit you, you did that to yourself. The churches have services, the transport system if running, you can go where you want, do what you want; you just have to make a conscious decision to step out of your everyday routine and say, this day is special to me.
For now, though, it’s 10 days away. The 5 o’clock chimes have just reminded me it’s time to stop playing, so I shall end this post here and finish my packing. I wish everyone a special Christmas, one that suits you and has real meaning for you, whatever that may be.