Japanese culture: Christmas and New year traditions

Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, as is estimated that only 1% of the population are Christian. It is very much celebrated as a festival, but it is more of a commercial event than a religious one. Christmas Eve is a time of celebration between loved ones and couples, having become a tradition to celebrate and go for a meal together (very much like Valentines day in the UK).

Japanese Christmas, like the western world is celebrated with decorated trees, Santa Claus and the giving of cards and presents between family members and friends. Hotei, one of the seven Buddhist Gods of Luck is also celebrated, with the difference being that he carries gifts for children for the New Year rather than Christmas day. He also carries gifts in a sack on his back, but is symbolised as a Buddhist monk with a shaved head, rounded tummy and cheerful face. Traditional food menus do not exist in Japan on Christmas day, however Christmas cake (a sponge cake with cream and strawberries) is very popular. Fried foods, including chicken, have also become a new tradition in recent years for many families. Japanese Christmas traditions are primarily focused on the spreading of happiness and romance.

Bell ringing at midnight on 31st December is a common practice in the Buddhist temples across Japan as a symbol to rid sins from the previous year. Buckwheat noodles known as Tashikoshi Soba, are also eaten on New Years Eve. New Year, in Japan, is a festival celebrated far more than Christmas and is celebrated on 1st January as per the Gregorian calendar. Traditional foods are shared including many sweet, sour and dried dishes known as Osechi. Soups with mocha rice cakes, sashimi and sushi are also shared. On the 7th day of January Jinjitsu, a seven herb rice soup, is eaten to rest the over-worked stomach.

It is traditional to send post cards between friends and family, to arrive on 1st January. These are often decorated with either the Chinese zodiac symbol of the new year or customary greetings. Poetry and games are enjoyed including kite flying, top spinning and a game similar to ‘pin the tail on the donkey’, where a blindfolded person pins paper face parts onto a paper face. Beethoven’s ninth symphony is also a traditionally performed during the new year season. A tradition known as ‘Otoshidama’ is also practiced by many, where it is custom to give money to children in small envelopes.

We had a chat with one of our lovely Japanese students Emma, to ask what Christmas and New Year is like in her home. She kindly shared some happy memories and what is tradition for her family.

“At Christmas in my house we celebrate Santa and give presents, but as Christianity isn’t so common in Japan, we don’t celebrate the nativity. We have a Christmas tree and decorate it with a star on the top. Again, this isn’t religious but we find it a fun thing to do. We don’t tend to eat anything particular at Christmas, but we often have fruit cake and nice treats like shortbread. We don’t leave stockings out for Santa, but do share presents with our friends and family. We do this two days before Christmas, and also share a meal together. I really enjoy this but do find it quiet on Christmas day itself as we have already opened our presents. Typical gifts in our family include games for our handheld computers, stationery and toys. Christmas eve is more of a special time than Christmas day itself, and we normally go out for a meal with friends.

New Year is a more celebrated festival in Japan. We celebrate again with friends, and often go bell ringing, play games and go to parties. I like singing karaoke with my friends! We eat special foods made of beans that are sweet and sour. Our family also send New Year cards to each other rather than Christmas cards. It is customary for us to spend New Year’s day playing games and spending time with friends and family.”

Thank you Emma for sharing this with us. Would you like to share your family customs and traditions with us? Please do comment and tell us how you like to spend this special time.

Thank you

The Guardian family Network.

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