I struggle to write about kurisumasu in Japan. What else can I possibly add to the multitude of articles already written about it? Gaikokujin new to Christmas in Japan first get an inkling of differences when the notorious kurisumasu kēki start to appear in bakeries. Each year they become more glamorous though “traditionally” they are white decoration cakes with ichigo. And “traditionally” they are eaten on Christmas Eve along with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken because everyone knows that the tradition dictates one have chicken for dinner. It’s been that way for oh so long now. (Since 1974 according to this accounting.)
Perhaps a little less known is that Christmas Eve is for romance and the pressure is on for couples. I’ll leave it at that.
It is unknown how Santa delivers presents since there are no chimneys in Japanese homes. I’l leave that at that as well. Not to mention that old chestnut about how a woman is like a Christmas cake on the day after Christmas. (Google it if you’re interested.)
I do remember my first Christmas in Japan which would have been in 1976. It was a Saturday and as I hadn’t been downtown in a while, I thought I’d go look in shop windows since I presumed everything would be shut down. I hopped on a basu and was shocked to find that downtown was bustling. On Christmas Day! In America, at that time, everything would have been closed except a few chūka ryōriya restaurants and maybe the movie theaters. But in Japan… gasp… it seemed like any other Saturday! How could that be? The cultural shock was immense for me. And that was my first introduction to what it was like living in a non-Christian country. I have to admit it was tanoshii for a Jewish girl! Japan was where I first ate panettone, in fact. A little bakery that I frequented in Tokyo was where I first had it and I still search for panettone that tastes as good as that one did to me. Alas.
And I went on to really appreciate the secular Christmas in Japan. In 1976 it was just another day but since then Christmas gets bigger and brighter in Japan. I imagine it might be offensive for true Christians, but the quirkiness of how it is celebrated and the beautiful decorations warm my heart. And I imagine that they find some of the real spirit of Christmas through college Messiah sings and kyōkai activities. But for me I’ll always remember the joy of a Japanese Christmas and the feeling of, for once, not being an outsider to a holiday that wasn’t mine.
- kurisumasu – クリスマス Christmas
- Gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigner, i.e. non-Japanese
- ichigo – 苺 strawberry (ies)
- basu – バス bus
- chūka ryōriya – 中華料理屋 Chinese restaurant. Note that there are other ways to say this.
- tanoshii – 楽しい pleasant, enjoyable or fun
- kyōkai – 教会 [Christian]church