Although Christmas is celebrated in Japan, it’s not such an important date in the Japanese calendar, and is more of an event for young people (it’s especially associated with dating). The real equivalent of Christmas/Yule in Japan is New Year (O-shogatsu), which these days is celebrated on the same date as the Gregorian New Year, January 1st. Just as Christmas in Britain combines elements from Christianity and the old Pagan symbols of yule, O-shogatsu has both Shinto and Buddhist elements. It’s chiefly a time to say thank you to the kami (deities) for all they have provided in the year, and to pray for their continued blessings.
I’ve always thought there’s an awful lot of similarities between the two festivals so I thought I’d explore them here, as the parallels suggest that certain motifs are particular important in all religious winter festivals across all cultures and many of them are deeply rooted in Paganism.
Red/white/gold colour scheme
(Left: Kagami-mochi (an ornamental display of mochi rice cakes for New Year) By Shin-改 (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) At O-shogatsu, the colours red and white are the most prevalent, followed by gold and green – very much like Yule. The white/red colour scheme is probably partly to do with these colours being those of Japan (think of the flag), but it may also carry the same symbolism of these colours in Yule – white symbolising snow, while red, gold and green are colours of vitality and displaying them is a kind of sympathetic magic to encourage the same vitality to return to the bare trees and fields.
(Left: Kadomatsu displays. By Nesnad (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The Christmas Tree is one of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas and Yule, and again its display is probably rooted in a form of sympathetic magic to promote long life (the traditional pine is evergreen), while decorating it encourages the bare tree to be fruitful again. For O-shogatsu, the Japanese display pine as well, combined with bamboo and peach blossom, outside their homes, in a decoration known as a kadomatsu. The pine represents long life, the bamboo growth, and the blossom good health.
(Left: Homemade mochi) It’s popular in many households to make and eat sweets on the run-up towards Christmas/Yule, including cookies, gingerbread men, candy canes, mince pies and of course Christmas Pudding. Making sweets for New Year is popular in Japan too, the most prominent being mochi rice cakes. One difference is that the mochi is usually put out as an offering to the spirits before it is eaten, while this is rarely done in non-Pagan households in the UK – except, interestingly, by children leaving out mince pies for Father Christmas!
(Left: Sweet amazake rice wine. By emily_harbour_in_july (Flickr)via Wkimedia Commons)
We associate both Christmas and Yule with drinking alcohol in the UK, and the drinks associated with Christmas tend to be sweet – sherry, mulled wine, brandy, wassail etc. New Year is a time for drinking alcohol in Japan as well, but usually in the form of the mild, sweet form of rice wine called amazake. As discussed previously, alcohol is considered sacred in many traditions, and anything flavoured with sugar or spices was also often considered a suitable offering for deities in days of old due to the comparative scarcity of these ingredients. In both festivals, I think the drinking of sweet alcohol is a way of saluting the gods.
(Left: Nengajo postcards. By Halowand (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons) Much like the Christmas tradition of sending greetings cards, the Japanese will send postcards called nengajo to all their friends and family. Very often the Japanese will paint a design on the nengajo themselves, often incorporating the animal of the Chinese zodiac ruling that year. The tradition of sending nengajo is taken very seriously – it’s very bad form to send them late, and if you don’t send them at all people may think that you or someone in you family has died.
(Left: Envelopes for o-toshi dama. By ©Jnn (Jnn’s file) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The giving of objects for special occasions is an important tradition in Western cultures, and Christmas is the biggest festival of all for gift giving. The Japanese give objects as gifts as well at New Year, but this is relatively downplayed – what’s far more significant, at least for children, is the giving of o-toshi dama, or money presented in a special little envelope. Money has always been the primary form of gift in Japan so this isn’t much of a surprise (in comparison, giving money as a gift in Britain can be taboo in certain cases and has to be done with care). But two other things surprised me about o-toshi dama when I first learned about it. One is the amount given – usually it’s quite considerable, and children may receive the equivalent of hundreds of pounds over New Year. The other is that I’m half-Welsh, and in Wales there is a very similar tradition of giving money on New Year’s Day, called calennig (it’s usually nowhere near as much as Japanese o-toshi dama though…)
(Left: Typical office party in Japan. By Josh Berglund from Richardson, United States (Kampai!) via Wikimedia Commons) The “staff Christmas party” is now an important part of Christmas in Britain. But Japan takes office parties far more seriously – they are far more numerous, expensive and wild. I can assure you from first-hand experience that Japanese work socials can go insane. One of the most important work socials of the year is the bonenkai, which is held before New Year. There’s no “secret Santa” but you can expect there to be games, good food and lots and lots of drinking.
(Left: Monk ringing a temple bell) Bells are an enduring Christmas symbol, both in the form of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, and as the “sleigh bells” on Santa Claus’ sled. The functions of church bells are both numerous and fairly vague (the main purpose being to call people to mass but also having the function of signifying a celebration as well as the more Pagan concept of warding off evil), but in Buddhist temples in Japan, the great bells are rung with a very specific purpose in mind on New Year’s Eve. Starting at midnight, the priests will ring the great temple bell 108 times in order to rid people’s hearts of the 108 desires according to Buddhism.
Luxury family meal
(Left: O-sechi ryori) The Christmas dinner is typically the largest and most expensive home meal that British households will eat during the year. This is also true of the meal eaten by the Japanese on New Year’s Day, which is known as o-sechi ryori. O-sechi ryori will contain rare delicacies such as red sea bream, black beans covered in gold leaf and lobster. Each of the ingredients has a special meaning, which usually derives from its appearance or a play on words. For example, prawns are eaten because their curved bodies and antennae are suggestive of an old man with a beard, so they symbolise long life, while the word for sea bream in Japanese, tai, sounds like the ending of the word for “rejoice,” medetai. One important difference is that increasing numbers of Japanese get their osechi-ryori delivered rather than preparing it themselves, while it would be fairly unthinkable to get take-away Christmas dinner in your average British household. But in both cases, the banquets eaten at the British Christmas and Japanese New Year serve both to help the family bond, to wish for good health and long life, and (probably) to honour the gods of old.
Speeches from royalty
(Left: The Emperor of Japan) Just as the Queen makes a televised speech on Christmas Day in Britain, the Emperor addresses the Japanese nation on New Year’s Day. Although the speech is generally about current affairs and society, the public appearance of the monarchy on the most important religious festival in both countries reminds me of the close link between religion and royalty. The Queen holds the title of “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” while the Imperial Family was historically considered to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto sun goddess. The Golden Bough goes into a lot of detail into the relationship between royalty and Pagan religions – I definitely recommend reading it if you’re interested in the subject!
(Left: The popular Japanese game karuta. By Ceridwen, via Wikimedia Commons) In Britain, it’s common for the family to play games after Christmas dinner, the most popular being Charades. Japanese families play simple games on New Year’s Day too, including karuta (a rapid matching card game) and fuku-warai (similar to “pin the tail on the donkey” in which a blindfolded person has to make a face with cut-out facial features). Both British and Japanese parlour games of this sort, which have simple rules so even young children can join in, help families to bond and to pass the time indoors during the cold weather of the season.
(Left: A traditional daruma doll.By Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons) In Western countries, one of the most prominent Christmas figures is Santa Claus, traditionally identified as Father Christmas in Britain. He is portrayed as a plump, bearded old man clad in red white and gold, and he grants children their wishes by giving them the presents they ask for if they’ve been good. As discussed here, Santa Claus is an amalgamation of many different figures, most of which are Pagan in origin, but is often most frequently associated with the Christian St Nicholas.
Japan has a strikingly similar figure associated with New Year who is also based on a saint – a Buddhist one. Daruma is the Japanese name for the Zen Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, and he is most familiar in Japan in the form of the daruma “wishing doll.”
Like Santa Claus, the daruma doll is plump, bearded, employs a red, white and gold colour scheme, and the Japanese ask him to grant wishes or to help with achieving goals by colouring in one eye. When the wish is granted, they colour in the other eye. The daruma is then taken to a temple on New Year’s Day to be ritually cremated, and a new daruma is purchased.
It’s very interesting that there should be so many similar physical characteristics between Santa Claus and Daruma. I think this relates to the things that people generally wish for in winter – life and brightness (the red, white and gold), long life (old bearded man), and health and abundance (the plump figure). In both the West and Japan, these “spirits of winter” symbolise hope and determination.
Visiting the local place of worship
(Left: Daruma dolls being cremated at a temple on New Year’s Day) Even the least devout people in both Britain and Japan may find themselves going to their local church or shrine/temple on the biggest festival of the year. Much of this is done simply for the fun of the occasion – churches hold carol services which are fun to go to even for non-Christians, while Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often sell food and mementos as well as providing o-mikuji – a sort of fortune-telling raffle. Public services for Christmas in Britain and New Year in Japan also serve to strengthen the community spirit.
At both the Christmas church service and the Shinto New Year festivities, blessings are an important part of the occasions, as is gratitude. In both cases, people express their thanks for life, love and light. And this is also true of the Pagan festival of Yule, when Pagans give thanks to nature for everything she has provided.