by Anna McMullen
Anna from Texas here. I’m writing from Goto Island, a ferry ride away from Nagasaki City. During the winter season, I have been talking to my Japanese friends, students, and co-workers about Japanese Christmas traditions. Some of the differences between our traditions surprised me! Here is what I have learned so far.
A Difference in Religion:
American Christmas: Day that celebrates Jesus’ life/birthday
Japanese Christmas: Happy day
Christmas in America and Christmas in Japan are different. In America, Christianity is a major religion. America was founded by Christians and still has a lot of participating Christians today. I am Christian and think a lot about Jesus on Christmas. Every year I read the Christmas story in the Bible and sing songs about Jesus. However, the majority of people in Japan are not Christian.
Many Japanese people are unaffiliated or Buddhist. Christians make up less than 2 % of the total Japanese population. So when I introduced American Christmas culture to my elementary and middle school students and I asked whose birthday I celebrated, most students confidently shouted that Christmas was Santa’s birthday. Only a few students (who are Christians themselves) knew that Christians celebrate Christ Jesus’s birthday on Christmas. For most people in Japan, Christmas is just a happy day to spend with your immediate family and/or partner. Therefore, when I’m talking about my traditions I tell my students that, ‘Christians celebrate Jesus Christ on Christmas’. Making those word connections by underlining the words blew some of my students away. They had never made the connection between Christians, Christ, and Christmas.
A Difference in the Length of Time:
American Christmas: 8am-10pm+
Japanese Christmas 5pm-9pm
In America, Christmas is a national holiday and lasts all day. My family starts celebrating at 8 am, and we party late into the night. We have a lot of family traditions, and it takes all day to get through all of them. My image is that even those that are not Christian in America still know that Christmas is a day to celebrate the life of Jesus. In Japan, Christmas is not a national holiday. Therefore, teachers and workers often have work on this day. I took a day off from my Goto school so I could participate in my Christmas traditions. Most of my Japanese colleagues and friends had to work during the day on Christmas and celebrated Christmas only in the evening.
America: Many presents
Japan: One present for children, or presents between couples
Both America and Japan have the tradition of giving presents on Christmas, but from what I can understand the traditions are a little different. Below is a little present map. On the left is my American tradition, and on the left is the Japanese tradition.
America: (More than 2 presents for children and adults.)
Presents are from Santa, and to and from family
Japan: (Usually one present only for children.)
Presents are from Santa to children or to and from couples.
In America, we have a lot of presents during Christmas time. I always receive presents from my family and friends, and I always give presents in return. I have eight family members, including my mom, dad, siblings, and grandparents. Therefore, I get and receive more than eight presents during Christmas time. When I was young, I also got a present from Santa. So I open and give more than eight presents, and so does everyone in my family. That’s a lot of presents!
My Japanese students in Goto only get one present, and it’s from Santa. It is usually a big present, and they are super excited about it. But my students usually do not give presents to their parents.
In Japan, Christmas Eve is a lover’s date night for single people. Couples eat a nice meal together (or fried chicken) and a Christmas cake. They give each other a present, and it’s a really romantic night. I see this Christmas Eve scene between couples in anime sometimes, and it’s really cute. However, I would be sad to only get one present on Christmas! On the other hand, I would save a lot of money…
America: turkey/ expensive meat
Image on the right from Businessinsider.com
In America, we eat turkey or expensive beef for Christmas. It’s delicious. Turkey is inexpensive and feeds a lot of people, but sometimes my family and I treat ourselves and buy a really nice cut of meat like roast beef for Christmas.
In Japan, I have never seen turkey at the store. Instead, the tradition is to have KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). It’s really popular in Japan to order your KFC far in advance to make sure you can eat it on Christmas or Christmas Eve. However, my small island does not have a KFC restaurant. Instead, they sell fried chicken at the grocery store. This year, I made my own fried chicken on Christmas Eve. Hooray for new challenges!
America: Family’s traditional dessert like pie
Japan: Christmas cake
In my American family, we usually make our signature family dessert for Christmas. Our tradition is to have pecan pie, French silk pie (similar to chocolate pie), and pumpkin pie. The dessert is usually homemade and full of love (even if the pie crust is a little ugly).
On my island of Goto, people usually pre-order a Christmas cake from a bakery or from the grocery store. I have not heard of many people making their own cake here. I have heard from others that the Christmas cake is usually white, but here on my island, they have chocolate, strawberry shortcake, and cheesecake. They are all classified as Christmas cakes here on Goto and can be purchased at the supermarket.
I ate Christmas cake on Christmas Eve during school lunch. All students and teachers got cake. I ordered the strawberry one and it was really good.
That’s a wrap on Japanese Christmas! I hope you enjoyed reading this article and maybe learned a few ways Japanese and American Christmas differ. I have told you what I have seen and experienced so far, but what about your Christmas experience in Japan? Maybe you could ask your coworkers and Japanese friends about their own Christmas traditions. I hope you have great conversations!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!