JET Program Reflections #5–Christmas

Pictured: A close-up of a typical Japanese Christmas Cake 

Here is the fifth in my Tuesday mini-series of reflections on my experiences in the JET Program, lazily culled from e-mails sent to friends and family at the time. This one looks to be from December, 2003:

*Christmas in Japan*
Please bear in my that my impressions on Christmas in Japan are those of someone that has never actually SPENT a Christmas in Japan. That out of the way, let’s get to the sweeping generalizations. I think one could draw a sloppy parallel between Christmas in Japan and Halloween in America, at least in the way the holiday is treated (though obviously not in the paraphernalia involved). That is to say, like Halloween in the U.S., everyone knows about Christmas here, and you see Christmas stuff at malls and convenience stores everywhere in Japan leading up to the holiday. But at the same time, to continue with the Halloween comparison, it’s not really taken all that seriously; it’s sort of seen as a kid’s holiday, people don’t get the day off of work, and adults without children either ignore it or use it as an excuse to throw a party. Perhaps unlike Halloween, I think Christmas in Japan is also sort of seen as a date holiday, so in that respect maybe it’s more like Valentine’s Day or New Years. Buuut anyway….

I asked kids what typical Christmas foods were, and received answers almost exclusively limited to Kentucky Fried Chicken, champagne, and Christmas Cake. Regarding this last item; I certainly don’t mean to imply that Americans have a monopoly on Christmas traditions, and I’m sure that somewhere, out of all the countries to which Christmas is a native celebration, there are a few that includes cake into the festivities, but I’m pretty sure that all this “Christmas Cake” business is a purely Japanese invention. Eating Kentucky Fried Chicken accompanied by champagne, however, is an old Polish Christmas tradition brought over to Japan by traders about two hundred years ago.

In asking kids about their impressions about Christmas during my lessons, I was alternately fascinated by the various things they did and did not know. They all pretty much knew that Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Mr. Christ, V. Mary being his mother. Okay, this seems basic to us I suppose, but you have to keep in mind that Japan is only like one or two percent Christian, so it’s actually kind of impressive. I think most ADULT Americans (much less junior high school aged kids) would be hard pressed to provide ANY facts about Buddhism other than that it’s an Eastern religion. The students also knew about Santa, how he enters people’s homes, and that his mode of transport is a sleigh driven by flying reindeer (though I did recently see a Christmas snack that portrayed Santa riding around on a broom). What gave them trouble was where Santa lives (the consensus seemed to be Finland, or at least SOME country that ended in “land”) and they didn’t seem to be aware that elves make his toys. Or that Santa says “Ho, ho, ho” a lot. And they’ve never seen candy canes before, and think we eat Christmas Cake. I didn’t even bother trying to bring up eggnog, but they did get a kick out of the whole “mistletoe” thing–it is sort of weird, if you think about it…

Merry Christmas, everyone! Think of me as you and your date sip champagne and eat chicken!

Tune in next Tuesday for our sixth installment, dealing with the crowd-pleasing topic, the Weather.

  • Christmas cake is a largely European custom.

    It’s as important as the tree or the presents to set the atmosphere here in England.

    It’s a very rich, dense fruit cake soaked in brandy for the months or month leading to Christmas. Then wrapped in marzipan and icing. Very delicious.

    Really enjoying the insight from your blog (late as I am in discovering it) as I’m looking to apply this November.

    Many Thanks.

  • Apologies, it seems I’m very late in filling you in. So ignore that comment.

  • Katie

    Christmas cake made me oddly angry. Cake’s nice and all, but it’s got a time and a place. Plus, it wasn’t anything like the Christmas cake apparently available in Europe.

  • Jared

    Santa really does live in Finland, according to Finnish people. They even know which mountain he lives on.