My First Christmas in Japan

“It seems to me that Christmas is easier in Japan, but I don’t know why.” I said this to my husband, Adam, while walking through a Japanese mall and taking in the Christmas decorations.

“Do you think it’s the secularism of it?” I asked.

“Yes, I think the secularism makes it WAY easier,” he said. Adam is Jewish.

As for my upbringing, my mom was Japanese and my dad was a devoted Atheist. It’s true that a lot of non-Christian families pull off a perfectly secular and beautiful Christmas, but my family never mastered that trick. As far as I could tell, a secular Christmas was about buying stuff and we never had much money, either.

My first husband was Jewish, too, so I never had to go into a Christmas boot camp in adulthood. I always felt a bit lucky that I didn’t have to fulfill the adult obligations of Christmas, like hours of shopping and credit card debt. Adam never felt that way, though. He always felt left out. He wanted to celebrate Christmas, but didn’t know how.

Nowadays, I know Jews who get a Christmas tree every year, but we’re just not in that league. I’m the kind of person who feels better when things are deeply meaningful and I just didn’t know how to infuse meaning into a secular Christmas.

The lack of inclusion didn’t bother me about Christmas in the US, though. I’d opted out of Christmas because I was uncomfortable with the tense undertone between Christians and secularists that always hums under the surface of an American December.

In Philadelphia, I lived in an especially Catholic neighborhood. Every single yard had a nativity scene, so I couldn’t forget that Christmas was a religious holiday around those parts. Well, every yard, except for ours and the one that always had a Menorah in the window.

In Japan, no one is upset about which stores decorated and which stores didn’t. No one cares if the Christ is in Christmas. No one cares about the pagan influences. To Japanese people, it’s all pagan because it’s all foreign.

Getting KFC on Christmas is a tradition in Japan and I think Japanese people assume that Americans do the same thing. I wonder if most Japanese people even realize that Christmas is celebrated as a religious holiday.

Another thing that’s missing in Japan is the giant ball of stress that I used to see hovering over people’s heads during the holiday season in the US. The one that tells them that they must make this Christmas perfect or else they’ve failed as human beings. Greater society in Japan is completely lacking the frenetic energy over who’s getting Christmas right and who isn’t.

Personally, I find the lack of floating stress balls relaxing. Even though Christmas stress technically didn’t belong to me, I felt like people would leave their stress balls hanging in the air, especially in stores. I couldn’t go shopping anytime between Black Friday and Christmas Eve without walking straight into one.

kimg0473What we do have in Japan are seasonal light displays and mall decorations. The “illumination” (lights) are creative and sublime. At any light display, there are children playing and people taking photographs. No one is desperately trying to get the perfect holiday shot while herding anxious children in matching sweaters. We’re just taking pictures of something pretty.


There is Christmas music playing in the stores, but some stores play Christmas music all year ’round in the international food section. Apparently, Western food = Christmas music. Not that it matters because the lyrics are in English.

Maybe I find Christmas easier in Japan because in the US I’m a Christmas outsider, but here, I am not. I can take pictures of the illumination next to everyone else. I’ll skip the KFC, but I’m a vegan so I’ll always skip the KFC, and that’s considered perfectly normal here, too.

Maybe it’s that in America, I don’t see the culmination of the December stress as it unfolds on Christmas Day. I only watch the frantic creation of Christmas, but the unfurling of it happens behind closed doors. Maybe that’s why I never found it easy or worthwhile. On an American Christmas day, Adam and I would take our traditional Jewish meal of Chinese food and watch Christmas movies. This year, we totally forgot about it.

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