Christmas in Japan

Yes, I know. It’s summer, and the heat really has really kicked in here now. But since I’m trying to post about my previous travels so that I’m “caught up” by the time I move to Hungary, you have a Christmas post in June.

I’ve had two experiences with Christmas in Japan. Or, rather, I’ve had one and a half. The half came from when I studied abroad. I left shortly before Christmas arrived, so I only saw the lead-up to the holiday. The time I actually stuck around for Christmas was during my first year in Japan. For the following Christmas, I went home. I’ll talk about each of these in turn. But first, a bit of information about Christmas in Japan.

Overview

Japan is not a Christian nation, and very few people are Christian. The rest of the population has probably heard of Christianity and its various holidays, but they know little about it outside of television or what foreigners like myself have told them. So the holiday is more about snowmen, candy, and Santa than anything else. Another notable difference is that, in the United States, Christmas is a family holiday. In Japan, it’s a date night! To this day I still can’t wrap my mind around that.

Studying Abroad

I lived in a city with my host family, and I commuted to Nagoya for my classes. I didn’t see much in the way of decorations, but my host family had a small tree that they put cotton on for snow or hung little ornaments and lights on. (They were not Christian, I should note.) I don’t know if they gave out presents or anything as I wasn’t there when Christmas arrived, and I never thought to ask them about it.

One other thing they had was a singing figure of a popular kid’s cartoon character, Anpanman. Much like our singing and dancing Santa decorations, this one sang pieces of Christmas songs in Japanese. It moved side to side and was dressed like Santa. My host sister (three years old at the time) loved it.

During one of my final weeks in Nagoya, I went with a friend to a mall. I had never been before, but he often went, and so we walked around, bought some breads and pastries, and looked at the decorations. They had lights, snowflakes, and other wintery decorations, and some shops had more than others. I also heard Christmas music. That experience was the most Christmas-y one I had in Japan.

Living On My Own

At the end of August, I arrived in Japan to teach. As such, I didn’t have enough to go home for the holidays, and I didn’t particularly want to during that first year. I found a small Christmas tree stored in one of my closets, so I set it up in my bedroom. I strung it up with orange lights that my mom had sent in an autumn care package, and I also added as a decoration scarecrow she sent me. Not the most festive of trees, but it was nice.

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My mom mailed me some Christmas cards and gifts from her and my relatives. My then-boyfriend also flew up for New Year’s, so I set out the presents and waited until he arrived to open them. It was a bit of a late Christmas, but oh well.

When I drove through my tiny town, I saw one window (probably a bedroom window) that had a small lit up decoration—-either a snowflake or a snowman. I can’t remember which. When I saw that, my heart leaped for joy and, honestly, I probably almost cried. The rest of the town looked the same as ever, and the only snow we got (which lasted only a short time) came after Christmas. So seeing that small bit of decoration made me stupidly emotional.

In my classrooms, I taught Christmas carols, told them about the origins of the holiday, made Christmas cards with them, and showed them images from past Christmases. They were amazed at all the decorations and the presents. I heard that they get one or two gifts but that’s it. Their big holiday is New Year’s, and they get money then, not presents. So all our gifts were mind-boggling.

During my second year, we also made small pseudo-gingerbread houses with a couple of my night classes. When I was a kid, I attended holiday events where we used frosting to stick graham crackers and candies onto small empty milk cartons like what we would drink at school. They had these same milk cartons at the Japanese schools, so I asked if teachers would save them for me, and they did. I made frosting, but they didn’t know what graham crackers were, so instead, I used cookies and candies. The kids and adults loved them. For those who only saw the pictures, it was difficult for them to grasp that, yes, you could eat the whole house.

 

Some of the adults brought decorations to make the room more festive, too! We also did a gift exchange. Everyone brought a present, and we passed them in a circle until we stopped singing a Christmas carol. Whatever gift was in your hands was the one you got to keep.

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Home for the Holidays

For my final Christmas in Japan, I actually flew home. Only my mother knew I was coming, so the rest of the family (immediate and extended) was surprised. I brought a few gifts from Japan home for them, and I believe I brought back some candy for my Japanese coworkers. Nothing very exciting to tell about this.

Overall, though I did miss the festivities of Christmas at home, it was equally as fun telling and showing my students all about the holiday. It seemed they had a blast learning about it and participating in the Christmas activities I provided. For those looking to teach a Christmas lesson, I’ll post about that next, just in case you want to begin planning early.

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