By JASMIN K. WILLIAMS
December 19, 2007 --
How do you say Merry Christmas in Japan? Easy. Merry Christmas. THE big holiday in Japan is New Year's Day. The Christmas holiday was introduced to Japan by the Europeans who arrived during the 16th century. It is not celebrated as a national or religious holiday, as less than 2 percent of Japan's population is Christian. The major religion in Japan is Buddhism. If Christmas falls on a weekday, everyone still goes to work and school. But over the past few decades, the holiday has gained in popularity, with the Japanese taking up the traditions of decorating their homes, giving gifts to friends and having a holiday meal. The holiday became popular due, in part, to the Christmas products Japan manufactured for other countries. Women and young people are the biggest fans.
The first recorded Christmas in Japan was celebrated with a Mass led by Jesuit missionaries in 1552. When the missionaries were expelled in 1587, Christianity was banned and the public practice of Christmas was stopped. There was, however, a small group of Japanese Christians called kakure Kirishitan, or “hidden Christians," who continued to practice underground for more than 250 years. During the Meiji Period, from 1868 to 1912, the ban on Christianity was lifted and Christmas reappeared, but it was never the great religious holiday it is in other countries. Christmas Eve is more like Valentine's Day.Sweethearts enjoy this big night out on the town at a fancy restaurant. Romance is in the air. There is a fabled Buddhist monk, Hotei-osho, who acts as a symbolic Santa of sorts. He brings presents for the children. He has eyes in the back of his head so children behave. Most children, however, prefer that Santa deliver the presents. Christmas is not a day of family celebration and food, as in other countries. The Christian population spends the day doing good deeds for others, especially those who are sick at home or in a hospital. The custom of exchanging gifts involves an oseibo, an end-of-theyear present. This is usually presented to teachers or people with whom you do business. Most people have a department store deliver the gifts. These are given to repay favors received during the year. These are usually not fancy or too formal. Popular choices are gift certificates, canned foods, coffee or fruit. On each oseibo, the giver includes a thin paper called a noshi on which the word oseibo is written. The oseibo is not to be confused with a Christmas gift. The traditional holiday food in Japan is Christmas cake. This is usually a sponge cake with strawberries and whipped cream.