This year Christmas falls on a Sunday (so does New Years, for that matter). I love the idea of going to church on Christmas morning, and I also really enjoy when I get to go to church on my birthday (not for the congrats, I’m not that vain).
This year though, contrary to every American feeling, we are going to the church Christmas potluck dinner and party on December 25th (and service too in the morning).
That’s because Christmas here is not a family holiday. New Years is the family holiday. Christmas is for couples and for friends.
Christmas is never the same when you’re not with your family, but it’s even weirder when you’re in a place where it’s an adopted foreign custom.
It’s strange though– there are beautiful lights (called “Illumination”) here and there, Santas and Christmas trees and the decorated gift boxes all throughout stores. It feels like America– often even Christmas music playing… I’ve always thought it ironic that there’s beautiful Christian music with the Gospel message playing throughout malls– what an odd feeling to hear the most precious salvation message being broadcast throughout the store in English while no understanding, no comprehension is making it close to the ears and hearts of the hearers.
Somewhere along the lines, by means of some ingenious marketing ploy, the Japanese honestly think that we celebrate Christmas by eating KFC and “Christmas cakes”. You literally have to order these things weeks in advance. They are astounded when I tell them that we’d never do that. And that most stores are closed on Christmas Day.
On the other hand, during New Years, most places are closed here, and especially small businesses are closed for the first 5 or so days of the year. It used to be that ATMs were all closed too, but I’m pretty sure you can use them at convenience marts now– those stay open. It’s a family time– many people go back to their home towns and eat their traditional New Years meal of sushi and hot mochi. They typically hang out and relax and most people will visit the local (or famous) temples to buy their charms and trinkets and pray. I want to say 2-3 million people will pass through the famous Meiji Jingu Shrine (not too far from us) during the first few days of the year.
The other notable thing on New Years is that people typically send “Nengajo”, New Years postcards. You send them to all you know with a greeting/wish for the new year and say “kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu”– please have favor on me this year as well. (You actually say that to every person you meet for the first time in the new year- so you get lots of practice). They are delivered on New Years Day, which to me is very interesting. The only exception would be if you had a death in your family that year, in which case you’d send a postcard either a month early or late (I don’t remember which) to explain why you’re not sending it on New Years.
The holidays on the exterior feel normal to me. But when it comes down to the actual week, it feels backwards. Christmas is like a normal day– a party day if you want or a good excuse to have a romantic date, while New Years is not the big party night like it is in America (though they do seem to have typical New Years Eve tv shows).
But as Christmas is an excellent opportunity to talk about the real meaning of Christmas and to invite people to things, that’s why we’ll be going to a potluck instead of sitting down to a special family dinner and hot cocoa. It goes sorely against my cultural grain, but if it’s really all about Jesus anyway, I suppose we should take the opportunity to tell people about what’s important to Him– His great gift of salvation that was set into motion on Christmas morn. What better message of joy to mankind than actually sharing that message with them?