During my time in university I got to know a lot of exchange students from Japan I'm still friends with up to this day. Since we were all broke back in those days, they usually couldn't afford the flight to visit their family and friends in Japan over Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Which wasn't particularly a bad thing because most of them were curious how we celebrate in Europe. So mostly every year I used to bring a Japanese exchange student (one time even my Japanese teacher!) to our family dinner on Christmas eve (as it's tradition in Germany) and to our parties with friends on New Year's night.
In exchange, I learned a lot about Japanese Christmas and New Year's traditions.
Christmas is celebrated in Japan although only a very small part of the population are Christians. The malls and streets are illuminated by thousands of colorful lights and decorated Christmas trees can be found at every corner. But here, Christmas is more a holiday for couples and friends than for family gatherings. Lovers make presents to each other and friends are having Christmas parties. The concept of Santa Claus visiting your home to bring presents is also known and lived in Japan. Kids will get presents even though most families in Japan are Buddhists or Shintos. There are even Japanese Christmas songs - and I don’t mean just translated songs from western countries, but their very own original Christmas songs. Christmas can also be found in Japanese pop-culture: In almost every slice-of-life anime and manga series there’s a special episode centered around this holiday.
Many people are surprised to hear that the fast food chain "Kentucky fried chicken" plays a big part in the traditional Japanese Christmas dinner - in the 70s, when the first branches opened in Japan, they didn’t get many customers. Thanks to a smart marketing campaign they made the Japanese believe that fried chicken is a traditional American Christmas meal. Up to this day, many Japanese families order their christmas dinner at KFC and even need to do so some weeks in advance to get them.
Another food that you see in Japan around Christmas is a Christmas cake. It has nothing in common with the cakes you’d find in western countries, which are traditionally filled with raisins or glacéed fruits. In Japan, stores and bakeries usually sell strawberry shortcakes, chocolate cream cakes or incredibly cute little tartlets shaped as Rilakuma, Hello Kitty or Totoro.
Contrary to Christmas New Year is the holiday where the family comes together to celebrate. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan accorded to the Gregorian calendar and since then New Year is celebrated on January 1st.
Kids (even older ones) will usually get an envelope with some money in it for New Year. There are many TV specials that families watch together eating toshikoshi soba (New Year noodles) or mochi (rice cake).
While it’s a tradition to write Christmas cards in western culture, you’ll get and send New Year cards, usually with prints of the animal from the New Year’s zodiac sign in Japan. Next year will be the year of the tiger!
Cleaning the house before the new year arrives is a tradition Japan shares with the western culture. But in Japan there are specific rules on how to do the o-souji, the “big cleaning”, that are pretty close to a ritual.
Speaking of rituals: You might have heard about the annual ringing of the bells in shrines nationwide exactly 108 times on the night of New Year’s Eve. This number symbolizes the 108 worldly desires in Buddhism. After the last bell rings you’re supposed to be cleansed from last year’s problems or negative emotions.
On the first day of the New Year, many people in Japan visit the shrines to pray to the gods, bring them offerings and buy lucky charms at the temples. Many women wear beautiful kimonos during this visit. If you don’t need much sleep, you can also participate in the Japanese tradition to watch the first sunrise of the New Year.
There are many more traditions for Christmas and New Year that I didn’t list here but if you ever have the chance to celebrate these holidays in Japan, check them out yourself! If you have already been in Japan around this time of the year, let me know about your favorite tradition in the comments!
Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all of you! :)