The true meaning of Japanese Christmas
It’s December again in Japan, and that means that Christmas trees are sprouting up outside store fronts while festive advertisements of cakes adorn the trains and convenience stores across the land. The usual mercilessly repetitive jingles that fill department stores and supermarkets are replaced with mercilessly repetitive carols for this one special month.
However, not everyone can share in the festive joy of a Japanese Christmas filled with hallowed traditions such as fried chicken and bowling. Christmas in Japan is also a day for lovers, and as of 2011 it was estimated that over 60% of young men and women would be single for the holidays and that number certainly hasn’t appeared to have changed recently.
All this lonesomeness and misery brought about annually begs the question: “Who the hell made Christmas a romantic holiday in Japan anyway?!”
■ Sengoku Period
Perhaps to learn the roots of why Japanese Christmas is “a day for lovers,” we should skip ahead to the first Christmas in Japan. According to records, Christmas was first celebrated during the Sengoku or “Warring States” Period of Japan. It was a time of major social upheavals and bloody power struggles between various warlords.
During this time, a missionary by the name of Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to the land. It took some time to get traction with the Japanese people, but in 1552 the first Christmas service was held. At this time donations were given to poor farmers in the spirit of the holiday and neighborly love.
This continued for several years until the early 1600s. The Sengoku Period had all but wrapped up and a new era of isolation began in Japan. Along with it came a government mandated persecution of Christians for fear they might attempt to overthrow the newly victorious Tokugawa Shogunate. During this time 26 Christians were crucified resulting in the eventual disappearance of outward public practice of Christianity in the country.
■ Meiji Restoration
It wasn’t until the period of rapid political and social modernization in Japan known as the Meiji Restoration that Christianity was allowed back in the open circa 1873. It was mostly introduced in the form of parties held by visiting foreigners, but it seemed to catch on quickly. In 1874, Santa Claus came to town. By 1904, Japan began seeing decorated Christmas trees erected in department stores which only a few years later would begin to offer specially decorated Christmas cakes too. As of the 1930s, a Christmas shopping season was in full effect in Japan, but still no one was stressing out about getting a boyfriend or girlfriend for Dec 25 during any of this.
■ Booming 1980s
For about a century, Christmas had a home in Japan, only without the self-esteem-crushing tradition of trying to get a date. Then the bubble economy of the ‘80s emerged. Young people suddenly had money to burn and corporations were more than happy to sell them a lighter.
In trendy magazines geared toward teens, we began to see the concept of “Christmas = Romance” develop in Japan. This was perhaps further fueled by the romantic seasonal ballad “Last Christmas” by Wham! which was a hit in Japan during that time.
Although the economic bubble has long since burst, the image of a romantic Christmas remains firm in the psyches of young Japanese people. Only now it seems to linger in a time of much less prosperity both fiscally and amorously. So, next time you see a blue teenager spending a lonesome Christmas, tell them that this whole dating thing was just concocted by magazine publishers and George Michael during the ‘80s and that the true meaning of Christmas in Japan was paved with the blood of martyrs at the hands of ruthless shoguns with ambitions to further strengthen their dominance… and cake!
Source: The Christmas Museum
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