Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Japanese Christmas

 “Merri Kurisumasu”.

That is the Japanese version of "Merry Christmas".

This is my first Christmas in Japan. One of my favourite times of the year.. when everything is so lively and festive, the red and green and blue lights glowing, the decors, the gifts and the cakes.  This year we had a miniature Christmas tree with tiny lights and decors (which I picked up from a 100 yen store), actually our first tree - we did it for our daughter.

Christmas day in Japan is not a holiday. Christmas is not celebrated in most homes. Christianity is not a majority religion in Japan with only 1-2 % of the population being practicing Christians and Catholics. But what surprised me is the number of Christmas trees and decors and Christmas related stuff that is available in almost every store in Japan. In recent years it has become “stylish” to put up Christmas decorations and many people now decorate Christmas trees. Christmas lights are also put up outside many homes. As a friend puts it, Christmas is a commercial festival!

Around this time of the year, almost every department store plays Christmas songs – the most popular songs seem to be “Rudolph the red nosed reindeer” and “Santa Claus is coming to town”. People are on a shopping spree and lots of gift items are on sale and display almost everywhere. In Japan it is common to exchange Christmas gifts- parents to children and among friends. In Japan too, children believe in Santa Claus, who is known as “Santa-san”. An interesting tip about this was given to me by an acquaintance. Usually the gifts should be a perishable or something which is of daily use. The reason behind this is that the receiver should be able to estimate the value of the gift and should be able to give a return gift of approximately same value. This gifting “obligation and reciprocity” tradition is common for almost any kind of gift. My personal experience is also that any gift we give is almost promptly reciprocated with a gift or at least something edible.   

The popular cake in Japan around Christmas is reputed to be “Strawberry Shortcake”. It is said that Strawberry prices skyrocket in the weeks preceding Christmas. The cake is usually purchased and not home made. I am told that people purchase the cakes a day or two in advance and most stores price it high at this time. But on the Christmas day the prices drop dramatically because they need to clear out the stock before the day ends! An interesting anecdote is that young girls are referred to as Christmas cakes. It is regarded that 25 is the ideal age by when girls should get married and any girl remaining unmarried after her 25th birthday is like an unsold Christmas cake – needs “discounts” to get married after that age! However nowadays I see more and more ladies well into their 30’s being single. This not so pleasant “Christmas cake” label seems to have been abandoned.

In schools too, there are Christmas parties before the schools close for winter break. Children are given presents- usually toys or craft/origami stuff to keep them busy during the winter break. In most schools and kindergartens, December is the season to have Christmas concerts. Our daughter’s kindergarten held their Christmas concert on 12th December in Iwaki’s performing arts centre, Alios. This event is called “Ooyogikai” and children perform dances and plays revolving around the Christmas theme.

Though not a major festival, Christmas sure is a festive season even in Japan.

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