The Christmas Archives

OLD JAPANESE CHRISTMAS
AND SAMURAI SANTA

by Mariko Okawa
of the
Felissimo Christmas Museum,
Hakodate Japan
translated by Akio Ohnishi

A  request to one of Japans best Christmas historians came up with the following fascinating account of a Christmas unknown to Westerners - and to most Japanese too! Including an amusing account of Santa dressed as a Samurai. This was followed by a further account from Mr Hirokatsu Onishi government official of the prefecture of Gifu which shows mirror customs of European traditions.

Francis Xavier was from Portugal in 1549, taught us Christianity about 400 years ago. It was the first experience of this for the Japanese and Christmas became popular throughout Japan from that time. The first recorded Christmas Mass was celebrated at Yamaguchi Church in 1552. Even today's there are 'KAKURE' (secret Christians), who hide that they are Christians, and they still use Latin when they sing Christmas carols. This style of celebrating Christmas has not changed since the custom began 400 years ago.

In 1639 National Isolation was imposed upon Japan, and most Christians changed their religion at that time, but some, especially the KAKURE, kept Christmas in secret all through the persecution.

In 1854, American navy Commodore Perry opened National Isolation and Japan began to take to Western culture like a dry sponge to water.

But Christmas was not well known at that time. In 1875 in Harajo School in the Ginza area of Tokyo, Christmas was celebrated. It was strange and amusing because Santa Claus appeared dressed like a Samurai.

In Taisho period (1912-1926) a lot of Western countries began ordering Christmas decorations and toys from Japan in stead of from Germany. Japanese manufacturers made Christmas lights for the tree, and dolls of Santa Claus for ornamentation, some were made of celluloid. And Aluminium artificial Christmas Trees came from Japan also. These Christmas things were getting pretty common and easy to find in Western department stores and toy shops after WWII.

A lot of beautiful Christmas customs had come to Japan from America, and in return occupied Japan was exporting christmas decorations, toys and china. During that time Japan was like Santa Claus' Toyland Factory. This continued until Hong Kong and Taiwan became famous for exporting goods.

Of course Japan was getting used to Christmas and Christmas customs and Christmas lifestyle and it was it was like the original, early Christian Japanese Christmas, though no longer celebrated by all Japanese as a Christian celebration. For example, sometimes for Christmas Dinner It was popular for each family to cook Hamburgers and Stew, following the example of American style cooking from after the war. By the way, Japanese Christmas Cake was a new experience for the Japanese, and they used to buy buttercream sponge cakes from the shops which served Western people. Until today, the buttercream or fresh cream cake has been the popular Japanese Christmas Cake.

Japanese had fast growth economy from 1950 to 1960. By now Japanese people were buying lots of Christmas presents, and had parties, and cooked Christmas Dinner for their children. After a while these children grew up and they talked about their nice memories of Christmas to their children. Thus Christmas was handed down from generation to generation. Recently Christmas illumination is becoming more beautiful and more popular year by year.

Now there is hardly a family which does not celebrate Christmas Western style, like American, English, French, German, Scandinavian and so on, which means that Japanese Christmas style is fading out. But it only has real meaning for a few people in Japan. We hope Japanese style Christmas will be popular again some day.

MIRROR IMAGE CUSTOMS

These old customs whose origins are lost in time have distinct similarities with many of our Western customs - the Namahage is like the Hairy Hoards from Central European regions, and its visit is similar to the visit to Wales of the Mari Lwyd; The Welsh also decorated a Holly Tree in some areas, and the customs of throwing out Beans to release the demons is similar to the European customs of taking down all the Christmas decorations by twelfth night or bad luck will befall. The most interesting feature of this is the fact that originally the date for taking down evergreens was 2nd February, thereby releasing the wood spirits which had sheltered in the house during the winter.

Mr Ohnishi reports the following:

Santa Claus turned up in Japan in 1875, and the first book of Christmas was published in 1898, was called, 'SANTAKURO' and was a book about Santa Claus and for children.

The following account is not directly related to Christmas, but has the similarity with such European Christmas characters as 'Cramps' and 'Knecht Ruprecht'.

(Ed note: These are scary characters from Alpine tradition throughout Europe, which nowadays are part of the Santa Claus entourage).

"NAMAHAGE" has appeared in the snowy villages every 15th (January?). Namahage visits the houses in the village wearing the mask of a demon and clothes made of straw. He has a box which he rattles and it makes a scary noise. When he visits the houses he says, "Where are your naughty children?"

The children are afraid of him. The people living in the houses have to give him food and drink and entertain him, and then say, "My children are nice" to make him go away.

Also, "SHI-SHI-MAI" and "SHICHI FUKUGIN" come to the houses on New Years Day. This custom is like old Father Christmas in Britain when people believed that a holy traveller visited the villages on the day of the Winter Solstice.

We have another custom like the Christmas Tree custom. People decorate a pine tree in front of their houses on New Year's Day, and long ago some areas had the custom of cutting the pine tree which had to be done on the 13th December.

We also decorate a Holly Tree, and put the head of an Eagle on the door on the day of the beginning of Spring which is traditionally 3rd February. On this days we throw beans to let the demons out.