Japanese celebrate Christmas Eve like Valentine’s Day: non-Christians go on a date in the evening, and after that… to the Midnight Mass
Loving couples come to church to take part in a real, and for them very exotic, celebration. People are afraid to approach the great God, the Absolute. But this God himself comes closer to us and becomes a child. Everyone can approach a child without fear – says Father Bogusław Nowak SVD, a missionary in Japan for 38 years.
TVP WEEKLY: Every Pole would ask a missionary in an exotic, non-Christian part of the world: how do Japanese Christians celebrate Christmas, and what is the attitude of the rest of the society towards this holiday?
Bogusław Nowak: Speaking very generally, I must say that Japanese society has no idea about Christmas and its real meaning. But they celebrate these holidays en masse and start right after Halloween, which means at the beginning of November. It lasts until December 25, because the next day they start preparing for the New Year celebration. The Christmas celebration is reduced to shop decorations, focused of course not on the nativity scene or the Child, but on Santa, or rather on Santa Claus. Christmas meetings (kurisumasu-kai) are quite commonly organised, but in our terms, they would be rather like Santa Claus parties: Santa comes, there are gifts. The celebration is very joyful, but no one mentions Jesus.
I once had a Chinese fiancé in Texas. When I said that I had to go to Poland for Easter, he asked, “Is that the holiday of that rabbit?” It’s probably a similar case, only Christmas-themed. Westernization, not evangelization.
However, interestingly, the day itself, or rather the evening of Christmas Eve, is very special for them. Japanese celebrations on December 24th resemble our Valentine’s Day. It’s an evening for a date for loving couples, going to a restaurant together…
Do they work then, or do they have a day off?
It depends, they often work only until noon. Anyway, on the evening of December 24th, all the restaurants are filled with loving couples, and after, many of them non-Christians, they come to church to take part in a real, and for them very exotic, celebration. When I worked in a parish much larger than the one I am in now (currently, I am in Anjo, near Toyota), there were three Christmas Eve masses: at 6pm, 9pm, and midnight. When I celebrated the one at midnight, I can say that 90 percent of those present at the Mass were non-Christians. Such young people who continued their traditional date in the church.
This is an opportunity for us, priests, to convey the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ. Therefore, when I prepare a sermon for that day, it is not so much for Christians – although I hope they also benefit from it – but for these people who came here for the first and perhaps last time. So I talk about what this holiday means for their daily life, that it is a commemoration of the birthday of Jesus Christ, who enables each of us to live in the love we desire deep in our hearts. Although their celebration in our Christian understanding has nothing to do with Christmas, it creates an opportunity to contact those who do not yet know Jesus.
And how do the few Christians celebrate?
Liturgically, of course, there are no big differences. There is a time of preparation – Advent, with associated retreats (mine happened to be on the day of our conversation, practically all participants went to confession). On Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day, we celebrate solemn masses, attended by many more faithful than usual. In Poland, Christmas has a family character, but in Japan, a Catholic is often the only believer in the family and therefore cannot celebrate with relatives. That’s why Christmas is celebrated together by the entire parish community. The Midnight Mass, which in our parish starts at 7:30pm, is attended by about 200-250 people, many of them non-believers. Afterwards, there is a communal parish “party”. Children prepare nativity plays – about 20 children participate, dressed as kings, shepherds, and angels; there are little ones from Brazil, Vietnam, and even Sri Lanka, but unfortunately, there are no native Japanese among them. And then there is a reception. Basically, the meal is prepared in our kitchen, but some dishes are prepared at home and brought to the church.
So, the theological and spiritual content of Christmas is completely foreign to most Japanese, although there has been a westernisation of this period in the calendar. Which aspect of Christmas would speak to them if we tried to convey the Christian content? For example, if we translated Polish Christmas carols into Japanese, which one would move them: “God is Born,” “Oh little, little one,” “Humble and quiet (Bethlehem stable),” “Shepherds came to Bethlehem” or another? Although after what you said, we probably have to put “Jingle Bells” at the top of the list...
“Jingle Bells” are in the supermarket and on the radio throughout December. However, Japanese carols are most often traditional songs translated from Latin. But they know and like one Polish carol, translated by a Verbite – it is “Lulajże Jezuniu” (Sleep Little Jesus). A lullaby – they like to sing it, especially the children. But I think what moves them is rather the music, not the theological content.
When I direct the sermon at Midnight Mass mainly to non-Christians, I emphasise the aspect of love. I talk about how every human being craves it, and no one can find it and their heart always remains thirsty. God, who created us out of love and for love, not only gives us this desire but also acts to satisfy it. This is exactly why He became human – one of us. Moreover, a defenceless infant. People are afraid to approach the great God, the Absolute. But this God himself comes closer to us and becomes a child. Everyone can approach a child without fear. Therefore, by accepting Jesus without fear, we fill our hearts with this longed-for love. They, even without being aware of it, celebrate love in their own way on that day. So this is the aspect that connects their existing understanding with our faith. This can be further developed – that God not only humbled himself to become an infant but simply bread, daily food, which people consume without any fear.
In Japan, bread is not necessarily a daily staple. Asians, except perhaps Mongolians, mainly eat rice from grains...
That’s why in liturgical texts, even in the “Our Father” prayer, the word “bread” is translated as “food”. Although the culture of eating bread is becoming more widespread here, and currently, the Japanese know well what bread is.
Missionaries from other non-Christian or even Christian countries could also tell about Christmas customs there. So, the whole theological content will always be filtered through local culture. And when it’s stripped of all these “costumes” and additions, what remains, like the naked Jesus in the crib?
I would approach the aspect of filtering through culture differently. Many of our Christmas customs existed in Poland before Christianity arrived. These existing customs were “Christianised” – they began to carry new, Christian meaning, content, and sense. Missionaries today try to do something similar with every culture. Where possible, we try to give elements of this culture a Christian meaning. Some traditional Japanese holidays, such as Shichigosan (blessing of seven-, five-, and three-year-old children) or Seijinshiki (blessing of twenty-year-olds), are also celebrated in the Catholic Church. And perhaps in a thousand years, just like in Poland, society will not remember that some holidays or customs were previously non-Christian.
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As for what remains when Christmas is stripped of sentimental traditions, I can tell from my own experience. Personally, I was stripped of the Polish cultural aspect when I came to Japan for theological studies as a 22-year-old, over 38 years ago. And what remained? At least in my case, the essence of these holidays remained. This experience, although very painful, significantly deepened my faith and in this sense became a great grace. Culture can certainly help a lot in understanding and experiencing the truths of faith, but it can also overshadow them if these customs and traditions become more important than the truths of faith they were supposed to express. In such a case, a person stripped of traditions and customs is left with nothing.
The birth of Jesus, called Christ, is a fact, at least that’s what most historians believe today. Discussions continue over when it happened.
For us Christians, the historical aspect is very important because we believe that God revealed himself in actual historical events. Not only in the birth and entire life of Jesus but also in the history of Israel. The people whose experiences are written in the pages of the Old Testament participated in these historical events, but they usually did not understand their meaning. It was the prophets, whom God endowed with a special grace of insight into the meaning of events, who explained to the rest of society what God was saying through these events. Different groups of Israelites passed on to their descendants what was most important to them in the prophets’ words. Thus, various traditions were formed, which were later written down. In the biblical texts of both Testaments, the most important thing is not the full compliance with historical facts, or better said – the conveyance of the details of the historical event, but what follows from it, what it means for us, how God was present in it and what he conveyed to us through these events.
The same applies to the life of Jesus. Most of the participants in the events of His life, including the apostles, did not understand at all who He was or what He was doing – what it all meant and what the purpose was. Jesus Himself, having a lot of patience with the apostles and seeing that they understand very little of it all, ordered them to stay in Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit, who was to lead them to the full truth, that is, to understand everything they had experienced over the years living with Jesus. Only after the events of Pentecost did the apostles begin to understand what had happened, what was the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and actions, and they began to teach about it. In their teaching, they often used texts from the Old Testament, because they well illustrated the meaning of Jesus’ actions and words. By their lives, they gave testimony, including martyrdom for faith. Fulfilling Jesus’ command to teach all nations, they continually deepened their understanding.
In the pages of the New Testament Scripture, the apostles and evangelists do not convey to us exactly everything that happened in the life of Jesus, but only what we need to believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God, and that by believing, we may receive the gift of eternal life. If the apostles did not convey something, it means that we do not need it to know the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions, that is, to truly know Him.
Many contemporary biblical scholars focus on getting to know the “historical Jesus,” at the same time separating Him from the “Jesus of faith.” In my opinion, these people base their research on the assumption that the “Jesus of faith” was invented later, and through such an assumption, they show a lack of faith that Jesus was truly the Christ. However, even if they were to know the historical Jesus but did not have faith, they would find themselves exactly in the situation the apostles were in before the descent of the Holy Spirit and those who considered Jesus a blasphemer, who led to His crucifixion – that is, they would not really know Jesus. For non-believers, Jesus is only “called Christ,” but for us, He is the Christ, the Saviour, and the Son of God. He is, therefore, who He claimed to be. Knowing this truth is much more valuable than knowing all the details of His life.
Christmas in Japan. Catholic Parish of the Holy Spirit in Anjo
Let’s skip the discussion about what the Star of Bethlehem was and what it tells us about the real date of Jesus’ birth. Let’s talk about the meaning of His birth in Bethlehem. What is the truth about Christmas and who still needs it non-commercially, regardless of geographical latitude and longitude?
This mystery has many aspects, but the central one is that one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, took on human nature and became man. The Incarnation is important, and the fact that the Son of God was born of the Virgin Mary and lived in this world as a man like us in everything, except for sin. Jesus Christ, being a man, is the same person as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Mary is the Mother of God, Theotokos, not in the sense that she gave Jesus the divine nature, but in the sense that he whom she bore and to whom she transmitted human nature, is the same person who possesses the divine nature received from God the Father. In other words, she bore Him who is God.
The Incarnation, the union of the divine nature with the human nature in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is a salvific act, because it enables all people to share in the life and love of God, and moreover, to participate in His nature – the goal for which we were created, but which was made impossible by original sin. In Jesus Christ, God crosses the bottomless chasm created by this sin and draws close to us. Now, by accepting Jesus, we accept God, uniting with Jesus – we unite with God. Without the Incarnation of the Son of God, this would have been impossible. In this sense, Christmas is necessary for all people.
So, it was dramatically essential for God to become man from the beginning to the end. After all, the incarnations of gods in human bodies, especially for procreative purposes, have been known for centuries – who hasn’t read about Zeus, who was both a bull and a swan, and a man, to fulfil his erotic whims.
As I said, the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God was to enable man to unite with God. In Jesus Christ, God united with man, and now we, by connecting with the human nature of Jesus, unite with God. Personally, I am convinced that this unity of human and divine nature, which existed in Jesus, could have been torn apart. This would have happened if Jesus had opposed God the Father in some way, that is, if He had sinned. However, now tearing apart this unity is impossible, because when Jesus Christ as a man offered Himself completely to God the Father on the cross, He solidified this unity and made it inseparable. I think that essentially this is what the establishment of the New and Eternal Covenant was about. No, not even the greatest sin of man, is able to destroy God’s love, nor to break this Covenant.
However, to this truth, that not only the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the incarnation and birth are very important, Christians matured for 300 years – only then did they start to celebrate it. Is this God-Man in eternity (whatever it is) also in some sense a child, the infant from Bethlehem? The question is serious because in the Catholic Church, for example, there is a cult of the so-called Infant of Prague, and as an infant, Jesus also appeared to numerous saints.
The first chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, written towards the end of the first century of our era, is almost entirely devoted to the Incarnation of the Word of God. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Those who received Him became children of God, i.e., they share in the life of God. Thus, we can be sure that the first Christians knew the truth about the incarnation of the Son of God and understood the meaning of Jesus’ birth. However, it is certain that this truth was not celebrated in the same way as we do now. The liturgical calendar was shaped over time, so various truths of faith began to be celebrated at different times.
Of course, we do not know eternity and I will not suggest that I know it, or what Him “seated at the right hand of the Father” Jesus looks like. However, I do know that it is a non-material world. When Jesus appeared after His resurrection, He took on various forms – so it is now. He can be the Jesus tortured on the cross, glorious, other times – an Infant, also in the arms of His Mother. The forms that Jesus takes, or the various figures of Jesus, show certain aspects of His life or express a certain spirituality. The cult of the Infant may emphasise the fact that God came close to us as a defenceless child, so that we could accept Him without fear.
However, the Infant from the biblical description is poorer, even by the standards of those times, more wretched than other children. The way He has to be born, how the mother has nothing prepared for the Son, not even one diaper, how she has to flee with her family to avoid death – it’s an extreme. This description may evoke not only compassion but also horror. Did this Child have to suffer so much?
It probably does not need convincing that our reality is filled with suffering. Not only sick and elderly people suffer, but also young people and children. The perspective that a mother has a layette for a child, that she lives under a roof and is warm, that a hospital nearby will help her give birth, is a perspective of the Western world or even Japan. But think about many places in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, where children suffer no less, maybe even more than the Infant Jesus. This is our common reality. To understand why Jesus suffered as a small child, it is worth considering who shows greater love for the suffering person: the one who expresses sympathy by crying over his fate, or the one who shares in suffering, taking it upon himself to help the sufferer? God in Jesus not only redeemed us but also attracts us to Himself with His love, shown through His Son, so that we accept His invitation to a loving community. Although Jesus feared suffering, as shown in the scene of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and although as a newborn or infant he might not have been fully aware of it, as the Son of God who decided to incarnate, He knew perfectly the consequences of this decision. Seeing this, we can be sure that God wants so much to unite with us that He is ready to accept any suffering, including that which He experiences in the Eucharist, when, taking the form of bread, He is even more defenceless than He was as a small child.
Bogusław Nowak is a Verbite monk and a Roman Catholic cleric. Since 1985, he has been a missionary in Japan. He has worked in Nagasaki, Nagoya, and Tajimi, both in pastoral care and in the formation of novices. He is the author of “Dictionary of Japanese Signs” and a small book “Love and Suffering”. For nearly 6 years, he has been the parish priest of the multinational Holy Spirit Parish in Anjo (near Toyota, in Aichi Province).
Main photo: Diver – a woman dressed as Santa Claus at the bottom of a large aquarium decorated with a Christmas tree. It’s one of the Christmas events at Sunshine International Aquarium in Tokyo before Christmas 2005. Photo by PAP/EPA /FRANCK ROBICHON