Christmas in Japan
“Mummy, it’s Christmas!” cries Kiko Blossom, my five-year-old daughter, jumping up and down in front of a tower of Christmascakes at the entrance our local Tokyo supermarket, as Jingle Bells plays on a loop. “Can we have Christmas cake for dinner, please please please!”
The only problem is, it really isn’t Christmas – it’s 1 November and I haven’t even tidied away the pumpkins and costumes from the night before and I’m definitely not ready to deal with Christmas yet (although good luck anyone who tries to explain this very rational argument to my overexcited children).
Welcome to Christmas in Tokyo. Japan has long been a nation famed for its punctuality and Christmas is no exception. Every year, the moment Halloween ends, Christmas, in all its tinselly glory, commences.
When I moved from London to Tokyo over a decade ago, one of my (many) mistaken preconceptions was assuming that Christmas would be a non-event, bearing in mind it’s not even a national holiday here and only one per cent of the nation is Christian.
But Japan loves Christmas – albeit with its own carefully cultivated catalogue of quirks and customs. First and foremost, Christmas appears to unfold more in shops than in homes. And so from November, supermarkets and department stores undergo an overnight transformation, swapping pumpkins and witches hats for a sea of over-dressed trees, festive treats and old school carol soundtracks.
And then there are the illuminations. Every year, public spaces, shopping malls and landmarks across Japan attempt to out do one another with the biggest, brightest and most expensive Christmas illuminations.
Sometimes the cultural references of Christmas in modern-day Tokyo admittedly get a little lost in translation (as reflected in the widely reported tale of the department store which one year displayed Father Christmas on a crucifix…)
But perhaps the biggest difference between Christmas here and at home? The fact it’s more about romance than family: Christmas Eve is, a little bizarrely, one of the most romantic highlights of the year in Japan, when couples dress up, enjoy a fancy meal and then take selfies beneath the illuminations.
It’s not all frivolous however. While most people go to the office on Christmas Day, one of the most important family holidays in Japan begins just days later – New Year’s Oshogatsu.
For many, it’s a treasured time when the nation’s retail machine shuts down and everyone goes to their hometown to enjoy an array of specially prepared dishes – before savouring a series of auspicious first rituals of the year (first dream, first sunrise, first laughter).
Back in our household, it’s often a cultural mishmash of a Christmas. While we normally return to London for the big day, during the build-up in Tokyo, we buy a Christmas tree to decorate with the children as well as a bamboo and pine leaf ornament for Japanese New Year – and try our very best not to eat supermarket Christmas cake every day from 1 November.
The children are wearing:
Words by: Danielle Demetriou