Japan started celebrating Christmas only by the turn of the last century. The culture of the country was so completely closed to outside influences before a few centuries ago, that there was practically no interaction or influence of the outside world on it. Only when Japan became an industrialized society and post the World Wars when they were exposed to the American lifestyle, did the Japanese develop an interest in the spirit of Christmas. This was more so because they were manufacturing Christmas trinkets and decoration items for other countries, where Christmas is the most important festival.
However, even then Christmas and even New Year was not associated with religion or Christ, Christianity not being a major religious faith in Japan even today. Hardly one percent of the Japanese population is of Christian faith. So the festival of cheer and charitable spirit is celebrated as a secular holiday, solely devoted to the love of children - to give them gifts, buy them goodies and have a family day of celebrating happiness and outing. Christmas turkey with its trimmings also quickly became a part of the Japanese Christmas, and so did the spirit of charity. That is one great way of celebrating Christmas.
Japanese Christmas Traditions
As a public festival it is celebrated with more fervor, lights and color in bars, restaurants, hotels and other public celebration places. Tinsel and lights are put up in halls and dancing coffee bars. Small toys, dolls (lovely little toys that the Japanese are so good at making), miniature candles, paper ornaments, gold paper fans and lanterns, wind chimes...the list of decorations runs endless with people as creative and artistic as the Japanese. The cities turn out looking like little pieces of lighted up, glittering heaven.
A very special decoration during Christmas is the origami swan, the little bird made of folded paper that little children so love to make. The swan, called the 'bird of peace', has the heart-warming distinction of the toy exchanged by young people all over the world, as a pledge that war must not happen again. All the people across the world should live in peace and harmony, if not for anything else, for the future generations to inherit a happier earth. The thought is so lovely and so in-keeping with the spirit of Christmas, and Japan is probably the only country that actually puts an ancient spirit of goodwill in a modern context.
Food is as important for Japanese Christmas and New Year as everywhere else. Most young people book fancy restaurants for Christmas Eve. At home, there are family dinner gatherings, with menus that include roast chicken or fried chicken and a Christmas cake. Very recently, pizza has also become a popular Christmas Eve dinner choice. Cakes, and other westernized eatables have a special booming business, especially because Christmas cakes are not usually made at home in Japan.
One of the most important times of the year for buying jewelry and other gifts, Christmas is the major business opportunity for business in Japan. Businesses also send out Oseibo (the end of the year gift) to other businesses, usually to return an earlier favor or to strengthen existing business ties. The gift may be very expensive, or something more easy, like beer, fruit, hams, coffee and so on.
Christmas and the end of December are also taken as the time of the year for charity for a large number of people in Japan. For instance, many people do charity; take gifts and other things for children in hospitals. These kinds of places are decorated with Christmas trees and gifts to lift the spirits of the sick children, or adults, as the case may be. Children sing carols to the sick people, some put on plays and other performances based on the life of Jesus. Goodwill and Christmas cheer abound even as everyone strives to give happiness to everyone else.
Japanese Christmas Beliefs
Santa Claus is called "Santa Kurohsu" by the Japanese children. The benevolent God from the Japanese pantheon, who brings deserving children the gifts, is Hoteiosho and he is believed to have eyes at the back of his head to watch the children all year round...sorting out those who deserve gifts from those who do not. Beliefs vary, but children's expectations do not. So gifts are an invariable part of a Japanese New Year or Christmas celebration too.
After Christmas is over, on December 26th, the decorations meant for Christmas are taken down and the country gears up for another holiday, the New Year's Eve. This is the day when almost every home in Japan is thoroughly cleaned and every adult and child dresses in their finest clothes to welcome the New Year with a smile.
The decorations for the New Year celebrations are no less elaborate, usually made of bamboo and pine. The front entrance of homes is decorated with kadomatsu, the gate pine, to emphasize new beginnings. The beginnings that start with New Year's Eve on December 31st, continue till January 3, well into the New Year.