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Saturday, December 25, 2004

There's no Christ in Christmas

santa speaks

Certainly not in Japan, at any rate.

I've had a few people ask me if there's any kind of Christmas analog here in Nihon, some kind of Buddhist, Shinto, Kwanza Hanukkah. Oh yes, friends.... it's called X-mas (actually it's also really called Christmas, or if you're being extra casual "Merry Kuri" [pronounced koo-ree] ). But it's a REAL X-mas, fully secular and completely severed from any religious attachments.

And it's a cultural conservative's worst nightmare. Red-state evangelists would probably pop a stroke on the spot if they found out there was no hanging Christ hiding anywhere behind the jolly fat man. Not anywhere, not even a peek.

But that's not to say that the Japanese don't approach the holiday with any enthusiasm. It's huge here, it's big business. It's not uncommon at all, during the month of December, to be strolling down the main shopping arcades to the tune of "Silent Night" or "Oh Tannenbaum". Weird yes but not unusual. It's not a national holiday- if it falls during a school or work day, everybody goes about their business as usual. But people put up lights on their houses and many municipalities get into the act too. Santa pops up everywhere, parents give their children gifts... in this way it's not so different than how it's celebrated in the US.

One significant difference, here Christmas is marketed as a romance holiday. It outstrips Valentine's Day in importance for getting your freak on. If your alone on xxx-mas eve, it's pretty sad. Many restaurants serve set romantic meals and hotels offer special x-mas "getaway" packages. Love hotels do a brisk business. Oddly, in keeping with the original origins of the holiday, it's a fertility festival.

Oh yeah, and there's a special Christmas Cake that's served. That, along with roasted chicken, constitute the "traditional" holiday meal. The Colonel (over at KFC) also does a steady business providing fried chicken if the roasters are unavailable.

Apparently, this deeply secular form of Christmas is catching on in China as well.

As for me, having grown up a Jew in not the most enlightened of Upstate New York towns, this has been an odd experience for me. Christmas to me was always a Christian religious holiday. We NEVER had a tree or "Hanukkah Bush", no strings lights on the house, etc. Always just the candles and the dreidels. No amount of popularizing X-mas as a neutral, value free festival convinced me. I mean, I always felt good when the Norelco ad featuring Santa riding a razor over the snowy hills came on the TV, but it was never OUR holiday. In fact, a lot of my identity was formed in direct opposition to that notion. Hanukkah was our "consolation" holiday. And I always saw that crucified Jew hanging around somewhere behind Santa.

So you might expect me to love it ... this is truly, truly a secular holiday here. But I feel some qualms about it. Is it fair to people of faith, of any faith, to hijack one of their central religious events and shape it towards an entirely different meaning? Even though this Newsweek article is a bit of a screed, the author does raise some valid points.

On the other hand, I kind of feel like I've slipped the bonds of my upbringing here. The experience here is so beyond the "normal" referents I'm used to it's like an entirely different event. In fact there has been some talk of having a tree next year.