Only a week left until Christmas and two weeks until 2014! This means the next 2 weeks won’t have any updates, but today’s will be a special one covering Christmas and the New Year in Japan. Customs mixed with some phrases and words to add to your vocabulary.
As you may or may have not guessed, Christmas is not celebrated in Japan the same way it is celebrated in the west. Although missionaries first took the idea of Christmas to Japan in the 1550s it never caught on, partially because Christianity was illegal from 1612 (although secret masses were held for the next 250 years until the Meiji period in 1868). Also partially because New Year is a larger holiday which overshadows Christmas.
Christmas is a western idea, with roots in Christian and Pagan beliefs mixed with commercialism like Santa’s jolly Cola-Red coat. Japan is not a heavily Christian culture and although has been exposed to the western practice of Christmas it has adopted it in a very different way.
For one, it is not a big get-together family event. Families might get their small children one or two presents from Santa or from each other, but nothing big, and won’t often decorate. It’s not a nationwide holiday that everyone gets off work (although the 23rd is but that’s for the Emporer’s birthday).
Families might buy Christmas Cake, which is often a sponge with cream and Christmas themed icing on top (the same as Birthday cakes but Christmas themed). And instead of eating turkey KFC is eaten! This is because of a marketing campaign in 1974 when they began dressing Colonel Sanders up like Santa and provided it as a substitute because it was hard to get turkey in Japan! 1 in 3 Japanese people are said to eat KFC at Christmas now.
Young people might get gifts for each other, but it is more popular for couples who treat it as another Valentines Day and spend it shopping together. Just like Valentines Day restaurants and hotels are often fully booked at this time.
What is similar to the West is the commercialism as it’s an excuse for cities to dress up with light displays, and for companies to decorate their stores and sell Christmas themed items. There will also be special Christmas themed events and television programs.
People will still greet each other with メリークリスマス！(“Meri Kurisumasu!”).
But when you give a gift you must be humble with つまらない ものですが、どうぞ, which means “It’s not much, but please take it”. Or きもち だけですが、 どうぞ, which means “These are only my feelings, but please take it”.
When you receive a gift you must ask surprised and grateful ありがとうございました “Thank you very much!”.
If someone does something nice for you (like pay for your food or buys you something) the best thing to say is すみません、ありがとうございました, “Excuse me, thank you very much” and act incredibly humbled (which I always do as a default because I feel so bad because of how nice some people are!)
New Year おしょうがつ
The New Year is the big one in Japan. It’s the time everything comes to an end. The old year is forgotten and people prepare for the new one with their co-workers and families.
The New Year in Japan used to be based on the Chinese calender, but after the heavy western influence during the Meiji period the date was changed to match the western calender.
Before New Year people will make large quantities of mochi, which is white sticky, gooey, substance made from beaten rice. At new year it’s normally eaten with a bowl of warm anko (azuki bean) sauce and mochi in the middle, or just balls of mochi (もち) with anko (あんこ), sesame paste (ごま), green tea (おちゃ) or other flavoured pastes in the middle. (Mochi at New Year can be quite dangerous for elderly and young people, as there are often reports of them choking to death on the stuff every year!)
A bigger tradition to do with food is eating end of year soba (としこしそば) or udon (としこしうどん) on New Year’s Eve (おもそこ) which they try to suck into their mouths in one go without breaking the noodles. This is symbolic for long life and and a good year. Lots of other food is cooked on New Year’s Eve and around New Year, but not the 3 days after which is considered to be bad luck to cook then, so leftovers are eaten.
Japanese people will always send New Year’s postcards (ねんがじょ / 年賀所) to friends and relatives to thank them for everything the last year, similar to the Western practice of sending Christmas Card. No matter what time the post cards are sent before the New Year they will arrive on January 1st as long as they are marked with the word nengajo. (You can see how to write a New Year postcard here)
There is also the practice of handing out envelopes of money to children for the New Year (おとしだま).
New Year’s Eve (おもそこ) also brings along the NHK Red vs White Singing Competition (こうはくうたがっせん) which is a men (white team) vs women (red team) celebrity singing competition and one of the most popular shows in the country. Judges and audience vote on which team sang the best. It is only done on New Year’s Eve and is great fun to watch.
Individuals and families will go to their local Shinto shrines for the first trip of the year (はつもうで / 初詣). Here they line up and pray for the New Year after midnight has passed (they will often line up before midnight and wait).
They will take their protective charms from the previous year to be ceremonially burned and buy new ones for the new year because it is unlucky to keep ones from the previous year. On midnight Buddhist temples will ring their bells a total of 108 times (called じょやのかね / 除夜の鐘) to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief, and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires.
There is also the practice of watching the first sunrise of the year (はつひので / 初日の出).
Finally, we can’t forget あけましておめでとうございさす which means “Happy New Year!”
さきねんはたいへんおせわになりありがとうございました (昨年は大変お世話になりありがとうございました) which means “Thank you for all your help this past year” even if the person hasn’t directly helped you, it’s polite to imply they have in some way.
ほんねんもどうぞよろしくおねがいします (本年もどうぞよろしくお願いします) “I hope for your continued favour this year”
Christmas and New Year in Japan Vocabulary
- メリークリスマス – Merry Christmas
- クリスマスケーキ – Christmas Cake
- つまらないものですが、どうぞ – It’s not much but please take it
- すみません、ありがとうございます – Excuse me, thank you very much
- お正月 おしょうがつ – New Year. (Literally the “greater/senior month”)
- あけましておめでとうございさす – Happy New Year!
- 新年おめでとうございます しんねんおめでとうございます – Happy New Year!
- 昨年は大変お世話になりありがとうございました さきねんはたいへんおせわになりありがとうございました – Thank you for all your help this past year
- 本年もどうぞよろしくお願いします ほんねんもどうぞよろしくおねがいします – I hope for your continued favour this year
- 年 ねん / とし – Year. (Year is pronounced two ways. とし is used more (but not all the time) when combined with other words or is said おとし to be polite.)
- 年賀所 ねんがじょ – New Year postcards
- お年玉 おとしだま – The gift of money to children at new years. (だま means “jewel” or “treasure”. お is used at the beginning to be polite.)
- 年越し としこし そば・うどん – Year end soba/udon. (Literally “year passing”)
- はつ – Start or First
- 初日の出 はつひので – The first sunrise of the year. (Literally “first day’s rise”)
- 初詣 はつもうで – The first trip to the shrine of the year. (詣で / もうで on its own means “pilgrimage” or もうでる – to make a pilgrimage.)
- 紅白歌合戦 こうはくうたがっせん – Red and White Song Competition. (こう is another reading for crimson red あか, and はく is another reading for white しろ. These ‘other’ readings are used when combined with other kanji to make words, if they were on their own they would be pronounced あか and しろ. うた means song and がっせん means competition)
- 除夜の鐘 / じょやのかね – The Buddhist practice of ringing a bell 108 times. (Literally means “closing night bell”. かね meaning bell)
- もち – Mochi
- あんこ – Anko
- おちゃ – Green tea. (Brown or western tea is called こうちゃ)
*All of these photos were taken by me in the Christmas/New Year of 2010/2011