Unpacking the Joys of Celebrating the Yuletide Season in Japan

Christmas, as we are constantly being told until we are blue in the ears, is a time for tradition. But what do you do when you find yourself in another land, in another culture that has its own rich tapestry of heritage and practices? Do you blunder around making mistakes, looking like a complete and utter dick in front of the locals? No, you turn to NAGMAG and let us explain away the pitfalls and differences you may encounter during a Japanese Christmas.

It’s Jesus’ birthday, so don’t forget his cake!

For many of you, Brits especially, childhood memories of the Christmas build up will be punctuated by your mother baking a huge fruitcake, and periodically soaking it with brandy at quantities normally only found in Charlie Sheen’s bloodstream. Then, it would be presented on Christmas Day where everyone would push a ceremonious slice around their plate for an hour, after which it would remain, fresh and inedible as ever, until the coming of the nuclear apocalypse*.

However, if you were looking forward to continuing this age-old custom here in Japan, you can forget about it. While Christmas cake is extremely popular, you’ll be surprised to find that it is in fact pretty tasty, being made of sponge and topped with strawberries and a delicate whipped cream icing. It is so delicate that, unlike its British equivalent that has a half life on a par with Uranium-235, if it is still in the stores after the 25th it finds itself either massively reduced or binned, leading to the cruel custom of nicknaming unmarried Japanese ladies aged over a quarter century “Christmas Cakes”. And not because they are all soaked in brandy.

Christmas Day? Too late!

Unless you happen to come from Scandinavia or the North of Europe’s mainland, your biggest yuletide shock may come in the form of Christmas itself not actually being celebrated on Christmas. Are you still following me? No, didn’t think so.

Well, for those of you who are looking forward to Christmas morning, hopping out of bed to see what cheap confectionary you will find in your stocking, then you are already 24 hours too late. Yes, in Japan Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, and it’s probably a good idea that you don’t forget that, because should you do so, instead of that big shiny gift you had been hoping to find under the tree, you will instead find a sizable lump of coal. But this will be the least of your troubles. You see, although Santa will have found you in the column marked ‘naughty’ when checking his spreadsheets, his passive aggressive offerings will seem like pennies from heaven when compared to what your significant other will do to you. Why? Read on!

The Christmas Date

Forgetting Christmas Eve can be disastrous for those of you with Japanese partners, as the object of your desire may be pretty nonplussed if you fail to save the date. The excuse ‘but I always go drinking with my mates on Christmas Eve,’ will cut no ice. So guys, make sure you get asking early to save on nagging, and girls, your fella will not be taking ‘no’ for an answer.

Oh, and don’t forget to dress to the nines. This is not just some ‘let’s just pop to that cheap izakaya for a quick bite’ kind of date. If you show up straight from work, disheveled, chalk stains on your polyester suit, don’t be surprised to get an all mighty earful. If you have been paying attention to your Japanese television shows (if only to get your daily dose of Vitamin Crazy), you will have seen the programs revealing the best (i.e. the priciest) presents to purchase for your date.

And then, once you have forked out a bloody fortune on gifts and dinner, you better pray to god that you had the foresight to book that love hotel months ago, because you won’t be able to find a free room for, well, love nor money. For a good comparison you should think Valentines Day. Multiplied by a thousand. And you’re still nowhere fucking close!

Marching to the Colonel’s beat.

This costliness of the Christmas date will apply to pretty much all young couples, unless you have the good fortune to still be a teenager. Mind you, if you are a teenager, what the fuck are you doing reading this? Walk away from the grown up magazine and go do your homework. Okay, just adults now? Good.
Where was I? Oh yes, teenagers. Teenagers have also adopted the Christmas date, but for some reason the optimum location for their romantic escapade is KFC. You may have seen the Colonel Sanders outside your local Kentakki dressed as Santa and thought that perhaps the restaurant manager had a quirky sense of humor, but you would be wrong.

For KFC Christmas Eve is big business – more than 240,000 barrels of chicken will be sold
during this time, up to ten times the Colonel’s normal monthly sales – and all over the country restaurants will be offering special Christmas meals for courting kids as well as young families looking to replicate the ‘authentic western Christmas experience’. Because nothing says holiday romance like a blend of eleven herbs and spices dribbling greasily down your chin, does it.

Jesus? Who the hell is Jesus?

If you are one of those god fearin’ folk, Christmas is like your birthday and Chri… hang on that doesn’t work, does it. Well, you know what I mean. It’s kind of a big deal, right? It’s the time of year when the world gets together to celebrate your head honcho. As such, you’ll be feeling pretty excited about all the religious iconography that’ll soon knocking about.
Well you can stop that right now. In Japan, Christmas is essentially a Hallmark holiday, like Mother’s Day and National Boss’ Day (seriously) is back home. Yes, you will see the huge decorated trees in shopping centers, there will be lights in the cities, and there will be commercialization through the roof, but should you ask your average Japanese whose birthday we are celebrating, don’t be too surprised to be met with the reply “Santa? Colonel Sanders?” And before you start getting all uptight about that – and let’s face it, you Christians aren’t exactly known for turning the other cheek –  just take a deep breath and relax. You’re going to have to get used to it, because, let’s face it, things are pretty much heading the same way at home too.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot? No.

And so, the Christmas festivities have passed and it’s time to gear up for New Year. You should be on firmer footing here, right? Wrong. If you were hoping for the usual night of abandon, drinking until your eyes bleed and then grabbing the nearest guy or girl when the clock strikes midnight, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Oh, you may have been fooled by occasionally hearing the familiar strains of Auld Lang Syne, but this is probably just the signal that the nearest mall is closing for the evening. No, New Year in Japan is a sedate affair, gathering with family and going to temple.

Imagine going to church after the traditional night of New Year debauchery. Fuck that for a game of soldiers. But off you must trot, followed by a day of tedium, osechi and, if you are lucky, choking to death on mochi. On the plus side there’s no Jools fucking Holland or Dick bastard Clark. So, swings and roundabouts really.

*Mum, if you are reading this, I’m not talking about your Christmas Cake. Yours is of course the exception to the rule.

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