In Europe and America Christmas starts a major holiday that lasts until after New Year on January 1st. Students have a long holiday from school and many people travel to be with their families during the holidays. Other people just travel. Because of the fantastic commercialism of the Christmas season - an affect of the confluence of several holidays in close succession starting with American Thanksgiving in late November and then including Jewish Hanukah, Christian Advent, Christmas, Boxing Day and finally New Year’s itself - many people wrongly conclude that Christmas is Christianity’s primary festival. But it is not. That would be Easter, in the spring.
In Japan, Christmas has been adopted as a kind of lovers’ holiday. Christmas Eve is an optimum time for a hot date when “love hotels” (which rent rooms for very short duration) do a booming business.
The Birth of Jesus
Most Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on December 25th. It is not really Jesus’ birthday, but it was chosen long ago as the day to celebrate it. Christmas is a word from the Greek language - “Christ’s Mass,” spelled “χριστμας.” The Greek letter χ, or “chi” (pronounced“kai”) just happens to look like the Latin letter “X”, so many people use the abbreviation “X-mas” without really knowing what it means. December 25th is another example of a non-Christian custom that Christianity absorbed as it spread over Europe. It is a winter time festival of lights, and it was the date of a big Roman holiday for their god, Saturn. Winter festivals that celebrate with lights, fire and food are common in most cultures. In the northern hemisphere December 22nd is the shortest day/longest night of the year and the start of the winter season.
For Christians the Christmas season is a special time to think of peace in the world and kindness among all people.
Most Christmas customs are borrowed from other cultures. The date of December 25th was borrowed from the ancient Romans. The tradition of giving gifts came from the Bible story of Jesus’ birth, when the baby Jesus was visited by rich people with gifts. The Christmas tree decorated with lights came from Germany. The evergreen tree as well as the evergreen wreath and other garlands are symbols of dormant fertility during the cold, dark winter season. The tradition of sending Christmas cards came from England. The tradition of Christmas bells came from Scandinavia. The character known as Santa Claus is loosely based on a real man, St. Nicholas, a 4th century Greek bishop and saint from the town of Myra, in modern Turkey.
For Japanese a “Christmas Cake” is a soft strawberry layered cake with whipped cream, what most North Americans would call
a birthday cake. But for Americans a Christmas cake is a heavy, dry, brown fruit cake, originally from Germany.
Everyone knows the character, Santa Claus. But he has many other names as well:
NAME COUNTRY / REGION
Santa Claus North America
Saint Nicholas North America, Europe
Saint Nick North America, Europe
Kris Kringle North America
Father Christmas Great Britain
Grandpa Frost Russia
Pére Noël France
Noel Baba Turkey
Babbo Natale Italy
Santa Claus is commonly known as a fat, happy old man in a red suit, who lives at the North Pole, makes toys for children, and gives gifts at Christmas time to all the good boys and girls in the world by visiting their homes in a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. Some Santa Claus customs like the sleigh and the reindeer come from Finland. In Holland, Sinter Klaus has a partner, a black boy named Black Peter. Black Peter’s job is to leave a piece of black coal for the bad children.
Over the years Santa has had many looks. He has been both skinny and fat. He has been dressed in a green, brown, or red suit. He used to be a woodman living in the forest. But his home later was moved to the North Pole in order to build up the Santa Claus fantasy for children. His most famous look is the fat man with black boots, red suit and cap, and a full, white beard. That is Santa’s most popular and common look today, ever since it was used in an advertising poster for Coca Cola in the United States in the 1930s. Red and white are the Coca Cola colors.
In North America children write letters to Santa Claus addressed to the “North Pole,” and the Canadian and American post offices answer them. Today, many children E-mail Santa, as well. In Japan some children send Santa Claus letters to Finland. After American Thanksgiving in late-November many North American department stores have a department store Santa Claus that young children can visit personally, have their pictures taken, and tell him their Christmas present wishes. Department stores also have elaborate Christmas display windows that are worth looking at themselves. When I was a boy my parents sometimes drove us into Torontojust to look at the downtown department store windows.
At Christmas time during my first year in Japan20-years ago I saw a department store window featuring a crucified Santa!
I thought at the time, “Well, at least they know the core symbols.” I wish I took a picture of it.
Christmas in Writing
A poem written by Clement C. Moore, an American doctor, in 1822 called “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” but also known as “The Night Before Christmas” is very famous and sums up most of the modern Santa Claus beliefs. The British short story A Christmas Carolwritten in 1843 by Charles Dickens is also still very famous and popular. (It is a ghost story.)
Christmas in Song
In northern countries the best kind of Christmas is a “White Christmas,” meaning a Christmas that has snow on the ground. The “White Christmas” idea became the ideal after a famous song with that title was recorded by the American singer Bing Crosby in 1942. Later, a White Christmas movie was made (1954). But the weather changes all the time and so sometimes we have a “Green Christmas” with no snow on the ground at all. Or, sometimes an ugly “Brown Christmas,”meaning the weather is cold but rainy and the ground is muddy. In the southern hemisphere December is even in the summer time.
Christian religious songs, called “hymns” are common and also other Christmas songs called “carols.” “Caroling,” or singing carols on the street is still done.
Pop and rock musicians also record Christmas songs. The most famous are John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971) and Chris De Burgh’s “A Spaceman Came Traveling” (1976), but Wham’s “Last Christmas” (1984) is especially popular in Japan since it was covered by a J-pop group in 2009. I asked my Japanese high school students what war they thought the Lennon title `War is Over” meant and everyone who spoke said “Dai Niji Sekai Taisen” (World War Two). Wrong!
Mothers start decorating homes for Christmas at the start of December, but the Christmas tree is not put up until a few days before Christmas. Some families take their tree down and throw it out as garbage as soon as Christmas is finished, while other families keep it up to decorate their homes until after the start of the New Year. The top of the tree is usually decorated with a star, or an angel. Some families do not put up their Christmas tree until Christmas Eve itself, and decorating it is a family activity. But in other families it is done by the mother, while the electric lights are the father’s job. Many families also decorate the outside of their homes with lights, wreaths, ribbons, candy canes and other holiday and winter time decorations (snowmen, snowflakes, etc.). Inside preparations - the food and gift wrapping - and decorations are mostly the mother’s job, while outside decorations are the father’s job.
Sometimes families simply get in their cars and drive around town after dark looking at the various Christmas lights illuminating citizens’ houses and yards.
Most Christmas trees are real pine trees, about 1.9 meters tall, but for some people artificial, plastic trees are more convenient. Some families cut their own Christmas trees at a Christmas tree farm. (It takes about 20-years to grow a Christmas tree.) Most families that use real trees just buy them from a Christmas tree seller. Burning candles at the dinner table is common. Candles give a warm, comfortable light in the winter season. Also, fires in the fireplace are very popular. Many houses have a fireplace, but some do not. Traditionally, Santa Claus lands his sleigh and reindeer on the house roof and then enters the home by going down the chimney. But for homes that do not have a chimney, like apartments, he enters by magic. Children leave a big sock, called a “stocking” in the living room for Santa to fill with gifts. In Japan young children leave their Christmas stocking right on their beds or futons as they sleep.
Throughout December television stations often broadcast seasonal “Christmas Specials” - Christmas shows and movies for both children and adults - in the evenings. Children look forward to them with a lot of excitement. Some of my favorite animated movies were A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966). Others are classic movies favored by adults: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), A Christmas Carol (1951, this Charles Dickens story has been re-made many times - 2009 with Jim Carey, for example - but the 1951 movie with Alastair Sim in the lead role of Ebeneezer Scrooge is still classic), White Christmas (the movie, 1954), and We’re No Angels (1955). Home Alone (1990) was an immediate modern classic. The Nutcracker ballet is a traditional television Christmas special. I never watched it when I was younger because I couldn’t see the point. Now as an adult I haven’t yet had an opportunity to watch it and even if I did, what’s the point?
In Britain, Canada, Australia and other former British colonial countries many people watch the Queen’s Christmas Day speech on the TV.
Some families have a big Christmas dinner of turkey, beef, ham, salads, cakes, pies cookies and drinks on Christmas Eve, and some families wait until Christmas Day to have their big family dinner. It is a holiday of much over-eating. A favorite treat in Canada is the “Nanaimo Bar,” an extremely sweet, chilled chocolate dessert. It is so sweet that when we eat it the sugar feels like it is exploding through our gums and cheeks, earning it the nickname“Dynamite Bar.” (Maybe only in my family.) Minty, red-and-white striped Candy Cane candies are also very traditional, although personally, though, I have never liked mint. I can say without hyperbole that there are a millionkinds of Christmas cookies, some cut into Christmas shapes - trees, angels, Santas, stars, canes, Gingerbread Men and camels (from the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth). Nuts, like roasted and salted peanuts and almonds are popular, as are tangerine oranges, called “mikan” in
Some families go to church on Christmas Eve, and some on Christmas Day, too. Some families open their presents after midnight on Christmas Eve, but most people wait until Christmas Day morning. Naturally, young children wake up very early and excited.
Again, in Britain and the former British colonial countries like Canada and AustraliaDecember 26th is also a holiday called “Boxing
Day.” It is another chance to get together with family and eat another big meal. Some people save Christmas Day for their immediate family, and Boxing Day for their grandparents and cousins. “Boxing Day” refers to the old custom of the Advent season alms box in churches in which people deposited money for the poor. On December 26th the box was opened and the money distributed to the needy. I don’t think there are any alms boxes in churches these days, although churches are still very active in donations to and support of society’s less fortunate.
At Christmas, Santa Claus brings gifts to all the good boys and girls. So young children try to be‘good’ during the last weeks of the year. Santa has a list of all the children in the world and he checks it twice. In some ways, Santa is like a bogeyman that parents use to control their youngsters. One song describes Santa as a pedophilic voyeur,
He sees you when you’re sleeping,
he knows when you’re awake.
He knows when you’ve been bad or good,
so be good for goodness sake.
More than once I heard my mother say, “Be good or there will be no Christmas this year.” It’s a kind of terrorism, isn’t it?
Children compose their“Christmas List,” a list of toys they desire and they spend many hours pouring over department store winter catalogs, the “Christmas Catalog” that includes Christmas toy offerings. (10-13-yar-old boys spend hours pouring over the women’s lingerie section of the catalog.)
Many children count the days of December until Christmas using an “Advent Calendar.” It is a calendar that goes only up the 24thday, or Christmas Eve. Each day the children have to open a window with a picture of some special Christmas thing hidden behind it. “Advent” means “coming,” and the calendar does is celebrate the“coming” of Jesus.
I was annoyed when I first saw Japanese Advent calendars with windows going up to the end of the month, the 31st. I thought, “Well, they are getting into the mood all right, but they’re not really getting it!”
Before sleeping on Christmas Eve many children leave a snack of cookies and milk (or soy milk if they worry that Santa is lactose intolerant) for Santa in their living room, next to their tree, and sometimes they leave carrots as a reindeer snack, too. After going to bed many children try to stay away during the night, listening for the sound of bells, or reindeer feet on the roof, or the sound of Santa in the living room.
Each child has a large sock, called a Christmas stocking, in which Santa leaves presents. Traditionally the stocking is to be hung from the mantel piece above the fireplace. These days many just drape it over a living room chair. In Japan the stocking is called a sock, “kutsushita,” and many seemed surprised when I call it a “stocking” because here a stocking refers only a lady’s hosery.
On Christmas Eve some brothers hide under the living room sofa waiting to spy on Santa when he comes. If they are lucky they get to see his boots. If they are unlucky they fall asleep under the sofa until angry parents find them and pull them out.
The Christmas Letter
Finally is the odious custom of the Christmas Letter. It has only developed in the last few decades. When I was a boy there were no Christmas letters. Not that I remember, anyway. But now it seems like everyone does them. People who ignore you all year send you a Christmas card and folded inside the card is a long - very long - and detailed letter about every little thing everyone in their family did during the year. I don’t read them anymore. I keep the card but immediately throw away the letter. Reading them depressed me too much because reading so much cheery news of other people’s accomplishments made me feel that my life is pathetic and unaccomplished. The Christmas Letter is a symbol of the self-centered self promotion that passes as a virtue in modern society.