Santa Clauses everywhere
The morning after Halloween, stationery and bookstores in Tokyo start selling Christmas cards. Most of the cards come from France, Italy or the USA – but those copies that are printed in Japan show Santa Claus in places all over the country:
- countless tiny Santa Clauses eating sushi,
- countless tiny Santa Clauses relaxing in a hot spring
- countless tiny Santa Clauses climbing up the Sky Tree in Tokyo or taking a walk at Dōtonbori in Osaka
The atmosphere on these Christmas cards reflects very well how I experience the Advent season in Japan. In my Westphalian childhood in Germany, Christmas was a holiday where the family would gather together and give presents after attending the Christmas service together. (Of course, the occasional family quarrel could not be completely avoided). Japan is a little different. As soon as Halloween is over, Tokyo is “invaded” by tons of Santa Clauses. Green and red decorations appear in my local bakery. The employees of the nice café in my neighborhood wear Santa hats (and this year Christmas masks). Even in the dry cleaner’s across the street from my apartment there is a Santa Claus in the window.
“Jingle Bells” in endless loop
The soundscape in the stores in Tokyo is also changing. I’ve been living outside Europe for almost 20 years now and don’t know what music is played in the cafés and supermarkets there in December. But Alvin and the Chipmunks singing “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in endless loops in my cozy neighborhood café is not really what I imagine a festive Advent season to be. That’s why I try to stay away from supermarkets and cafés for the last six weeks of the year – and if it’s absolutely unavoidable, I wear noise-cancelling headphones, which makes it more bearable.
Christmas Eve reserved for lovers
Just as most Europeans look forward to New Year’s Eve parties, Christmas in Japan is also more of a party where people spend more money. Christmas Eve itself is the most important day – and for unmarried Japanese people it is the evening they want to spend with their sweethearts. Of course, this also includes a gift. Websites and magazines are full of recommendations on which restaurant to go to and which hotel to stay in. Christmas is the festival of love, and Christmas Eve is reserved for lovers.
As my colleague K put it:
“I would never suggest meeting someone on December 24th, whether for business or pleasure. You might have something very nice planned.”
The Advent season is also celebrated by kindergarten children by decorating the windows and rooms of the kindergarten or after-school care center accordingly. Many toddlers also believe in Santa Claus – after all, he brings them presents. Schools and after-school groups also organize small Christmas events where the children receive or exchange gifts.
Kentucky Fried Chicken feast
On the evening of December 24th, a small plastic tree with LED lights is placed on the family table and families gather to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken and Christmas Cake. The party keg is a stroke of genius by the KFC Japan Marketing Department. In 1974, the fast food chain first launched its Party Barrel – this year it costs 4,100 JPY, or just under 33 euros. The daily turnover of a Japanese KFC branch can be ten times the usual turnover in the month of December, and Christmas sales account for about one third of KFC Japan’s annual turnover! For dessert, families traditionally eat Christmas Cake, a round sponge cake decorated with lots of whipped cream and strawberries. After World War II, butter, milk and sugar were luxury items – and when Japan’s economy recovered after the war, Christmas Cake became a symbol of prosperity. This has continued until today.
Here’s to a new one
Despite everything, Christmas is not an official holiday in Japan and school usually ends on December 25 or 26. The festival itself ends on December 25th. For the next two weeks, the stores change over to New Year’s decorations. Everything slows down a bit to concentrate on the really important things in life: welcoming a new year with the New Year festivities.
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