Tuesday, December 24, 2013

christmas and kurisumasu

As we prepare for our third Christmas in Japan, we are remembering traditions that we grew up with and reflecting on some of the Japanese holiday customs as well. Doing this, I realized that I've never written a blog about how the Japanese celebrate this traditionally-western holiday! So here are some of the similarities and differences between Christmas in America and クリスマス in Japan.

The first thing we tell our American friends about Christmas in Japan is the KFC phenomenon. Years ago, KFC launched a campaign to sell fried chicken for Christmas dinner. Not only did this take off as a popular annual delight, but most of the Japanese we have become friends with believe that this is an American tradition. They were heartbroken to find that most Americans do not, in fact, get KFC for Christmas dinner. Starting in November throughout Japan, you can find Colonel Sanders decked out in Santa attire, and the lines for Christmas chicken can be hours long.

Colonel Santa draws customers into KFC for Christmas

One similarity between Christmas in America and in Japan is the music. American holiday music can be found in shopping malls starting in November. In most areas of Japan, there are city-wide speaker systems to alert the public in case of earthquakes, fires, and other emergencies. During the Christmas season, our town uses the speaker systems in the city center area to play holiday music in the evenings. There is nothing more beautiful than taking a stroll through downtown in the snow, looking at the lights and listening to Bing Crosby croon a classic Christmas tune.

On that note, Christmas decorations are also popular here in Japan. You won't find many houses decked out with lights or inflatable snowmen, but the town centers and shopping malls often have Christmas trees and lights all over. Our town center usually has a large Christmas display with a huge tree and beautiful lights. Bigger cities have Illuminations, entire streets covered with lights and music.

Ben at American Park at Christmas in Misawa

Musashino Illuminations in Tokyo

Roppongi Illuminations in Tokyo

Shinjuku Illuminations in Tokyo

Christmas Eve is the perfect evening to view a city or town's Illuminations or town center festivities. Christmas Eve is a time for families and couples. In fact, Christmas Eve is the real holiday in Japan - Christmas Day is usually spent at work just like a normal day. There is no mention of a manger or Jesus or church visiting. There are no cookies left out, visits from Santa, or presents to open. On Christmas Eve, though, you'll see couples (often hand-in-hand - it's one of the few times in Japan you will actually see some PDA. Usually it's kind of frowned upon...) and families spending time together and enjoying the lights, music, and companionship.

Couple holding hands at Shinjuku Illuminations in Tokyo

For a country that really doesn't celebrate Christmas, you can easily find Christmas decorations, lights, and Christmas themed food and drink just about anywhere. Bakeries will often have Santa or Christmas-themed pastries, which are always adorable!

The Japanese don't typically exchange gifts for Christmas, but often give gifts and letters/cards for the New Year. Gift exchanging is not done frequently in Japan, so when it is done, it's not something to be taken lightly. Where in America, we wrap gifts in a decorative paper bag or paper wrapping that is later discarded, gift wrapping in Japan is typically just as important as the gift itself. Often, gifts are wrapped furoshiki style, which is a large decorative piece of cloth. Wrapping a gift in Japan is like tying a scarf - everyone has their own personal and artistic way of doing it. The cloth can be used again for many different things.

Various gifts wrapped with summery furoshiki

All in all, we love being able to share our Christmas traditions with our Japanese friends and to learn how they like to celebrate as well. It's one of the many wonderful things about being able to travel and live in another country!

We want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas (or Merii Kurisumasu) and a happy new year!