Christmas—Why So Popular in Japan?
BELIEF in Father Christmas runs deep among children in the Buddhist-Shinto country of Japan. In 1989, Japanese children wrote 160,000 letters to Santa World in Sweden. No other country sent more. They wrote the letters in hopes of gratifying their heart’s desire, be it an 18,000-yen ($136, U.S.) toy “Graphic Computer” or a 12,500-yen ($95, U.S.) portable video game.
To young Japanese girls, a date on Christmas Eve carries a special meaning. “According to a survey of young women,” says Mainichi Daily News, “38 percent said they had made plans for Christmas Eve a month ahead.” Young men have ulterior motives in wanting to be with their girlfriends on Christmas Eve. “A good idea is to pray together quietly with your girlfriend,” suggested a magazine for young men. “Do it somewhere fashionable. Your relationship will quickly become more intimate.”
Japanese husbands also hope to invoke some magical power by their Christmas tradition of buying a “decoration cake” on the way home from work. Playing the role of Santa Claus is supposed to compensate for neglecting the family the rest of the year.
Indeed, Christmas has taken root among the non-Christian Japanese. In fact, 78 percent of those surveyed by a supermarket chain said they do something special for Christmas. The ratio is overwhelming in a country where only 1 percent of the population claims to believe in Christianity. While professing to be Buddhists or Shintoists, they feel quite at ease enjoying the “Christian” holiday. In its almanac, together with Japanese festivals, the renowned Shinto Ise Shrine lists December 25th as “Christ’s birthday.” Scenes of non-Christians steeped in merrymaking during Christmas, however, raise the question:
Whose Celebration Is Christmas?
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines Christmas as “a Christian feast on December 25 . . . that commemorates the birth of Christ.” It has been viewed as a time for “Christians” to “unite in their feelings of joy on Christ’s birthday.”
Those who celebrate Christmas as a purely religious festival may find those who secularize that day with merrymaking and gift-giving to be annoying and even blasphemous. “In Japan we have the ultimate in crass commercialism: no Christ,” wrote an American living in Japan. “To the Western eye,” another wrote concerning the Japanese Christmas, “it is not the turkey [which is not commonly found in Japanese markets] that is missing, but the most essential of ingredients, the spirit.”
What, then, is the spirit of Christmas? Is it the atmosphere of a church service with its carols, holly, and candles, which for many are used for their sole annual pilgrimage to the church? Or is it the love, the good cheer, and the gift-giving that move many to be generous? Is it the calmness that prevails on the battlefront while soldiers observe a few days of “peace on earth”?
Amazingly, the Christmas spirit often fails to bring peace even to the home front. According to a 1987 survey in England, it was estimated that ‘civil war’ would break out in 70 percent of British homes during Christmas that year. Battling over money would be the main cause. Drinking too much and not fulfilling one’s role in the family also lead to fighting.
“I wonder if we aren’t missing something about the true meaning of Christmas,” wrote a Westerner living in Japan who visited his home during the Christmas season recently. “Every Dec. 25, I feel the same longing to go back to that old-fashioned kind of Christmas of long ago—the pagan ceremony that celebrated the winter solstice by worshipping trees and holding orgies. We still have all the pagan trappings—mistletoe, holly, fir trees and so on—but somehow Christmas has never been the same since it was hijacked by the Christians and turned into a religious festival.”
Undeniably, Christmas is a pagan holiday. The early Christians did not celebrate it “because they considered the celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom,” says The World Book Encyclopedia. The pagan festivals of Saturnalia and New Year are the source of the merrymaking and exchange of presents.
If Christmas is essentially pagan, genuine Christians must ask the question, Is Christmas for Christians? Let us see what the Bible says concerning the celebration of the birthday of Christ.
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The Origin of Christmas Celebration
Although the exact details are lost in the mists of antiquity, indications are that by 336 C.E., a form of Christmas was being celebrated by the Roman church. “The date of Christmas was purposely fixed on December 25,” explains The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “to push into the background the great festival of the sun god.” That was when pagans indulged in orgies during the festivals of both the Roman Saturnalia and the Celtic and German feast of winter solstice. The New Caxton Encyclopedia says that “the Church seized the opportunity to Christianize these festivals.”