2008 is gradually coming to a close. How has this year been for you?
There is a custom in England of making a wish at Christmas. Most of you probably already know that a wish is something you want. For example, you may really want an item of clothing that is really expensive, and you cannot afford to buy it yourself, but you hope that someone will buy it for you and give it to you on Christmas Day. Or else you wish for world peace and an end to all the senseless wars in the world, and you care about the original meaning of Christmas as a time of giving. Of course, it is hard to achieve world peace by yourself, but you can change the environment around you. This is the idea behind Think Globally, Act Locally. Actually, many English people organise a Soup Kitchen at Christmas. What is that? Well, a Soup Kitchen is food that you give to homeless people so that they do not fall ill due to lack of food or cold at the coldest time of year. If any of you know the delightful tale by the novelist Charles Dickens, called a Christmas Carol, a wicked man named Scrooge keeps all the money to himself, and will not give any money to the poor and sick and old who need it. He finally comes to understand that giving is more important than receiving. So anyway, the key idea of the Festive Season is not really the exchanging of presents. That is a kind of custom or ritual, and children especially love it; but for adults, the idea is to give to the needy, the people who really need our love and help. In the words of the old folk song:
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat!
Many people in Japan have asked me about the connection between the religious festival of Christmas and Father Christmas – the person you know as Santa Claus. Well, the story I learnt as a child was that there was an old folk festival in Scandinavia, called Yuletide. Every year, the winter was snowy and very long, and to cheer the people up there was a big celebration. That is the origin of snow, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, the reindeer, gifts carried down the chimney in a sack, and the magic and mystery of the occasion. Then there was a religious festival, which is concerned with the birth of Jesus, the camels in the desert, the stars, the poor child and his family, carol singing about Bethlehem, the three kings who carried presents for the baby, and at school we used to act out the Nativity Play (the story of the birth of Jesus). Naturally, it is hard to know when exactly there two traditions became one, and why Santa Claus now wears a red coat and has a white beard, but with the addition of advertising and marketing and sales and commercialism we now have the modern Christmas.
In Japan, we can also enjoy Christmas now, and especially the illuminations on the trees. Here is a photo of the gigantic tree at Kyoto Station:
[Accessed December 15, 2008 at?http://kyototravelguide.blogspot.com/2008/12/illumination.html]
Compare this with the Christmas lights in Regent Street in Central London. It is a tradition that Oxford Street and Regent Street light up the sky above the shoppers every year:
[Accessed December 15, 2008 at?http://www.ukstudentlife.com/Ideas/Album/ChristmasLights.htm]
It seems then that the custom of celebrating Christmas has spread to many countries around the world. There are some people that feel this is a happy thing because they get to enjoy these celebrations and it makes their lives richer and fuller. Others, however, feel that Christmas is not a Japanese festival, and that it is artificial, and that it is only about money. As I mentioned above, I feel that Christmas is partly about shopping, but it is also about all those other things too. I think it depends on the individual and how he or she wants to celebrate it. As for the idea that it is not Japanese, it is quite a difficult thing to separate things so neatly. Do we eat Western food? Do we wear Western fashions? Do we listen to Western music? Do we celebrate Western-style weddings? Does the Japanese language have loan words from the West? I hope at Christmas, the season of goodwill, we have the chance to think about things in our lives, and decide for ourselves what is important.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!