Miracle on 34th Street, Japan Edition

As we come up on the holiday season once again (as evidenced by the kilogram of retail store flyers that arrived in my mailbox yesterday), I feel oddly compelled to take a short look at the state of the holidays, here and abroad. Two or three years ago, at about this time, I was wandering around in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district, admiring the magnificently decorated store windows, all brimming with Yuletide paraphernalia (and, of course, oodles of spendy merchandise). One window in particular caught my eye, a brightly illuminated nativity scene peopled with the usual manger crowd (Joseph, Mary, a haloed Jesus, Balthazar, Melchior, Kaspar, and an assortment of farm animals). In addition, there were a couple of surprise guests in attendance: a ruddy-cheeked Santa Claus, heavily laden with a sack of gaily beribboned gifts; and, on a raised ledge off to one side, smiling down beatifically upon the scene, a crimson Satan, his pointy tail draped artfully down the wall. My initial reaction, which I suspect would be akin to that of most Westerners, was “Oh dear, these folks have a skewed view of the meaning of Christmas.” The more I ruminated on it, however, the more I began to think “Maybe not; maybe they get it better than we do.” Here’s why: Christmas is simply a merchandising opportunity in Japan, one that is not imbued with any particular meaning or tradition. The overwhelming majority of Japanese are non-Christian, and would be hard pressed to explain the significance of the manger scene. In fact, Christmas is not even a holiday there; most folks work all day December 25th (although it must be said that many are recovering from Christmas Eve overindulgence of one sort or another). As an institution, Christmas is about on a par with Valentine’s Day, bringing joy far and wide—into the hearts of retailers. An overall mood of benevolence and goodwill? Not so much. Kinda like here in the West, only without the self-delusion.

Certainly I wouldn’t be the first person to complain that Christmas Spirit is on the endangered species list nowadays. Retailers, pundits, and government spokesmen form an uneasy alliance around this time of year, urging us to spend, spend, spend—it’s the patriotic thing to do. It’s the season for us to finally catch up with the Joneses, and for the Joneses to take yet another quantum leap ahead of us. The post office generates untold revenues from kids’ importunate letters to the North Pole, all of which are stamped, and none of which will require delivery. That’s probably just as well, I guess. To the best of my memory, none of my requests to Santa Claus were for world peace or gifts for underprivileged kids, but rather about stuff for me, me, me. And me.

As I am usually in Japan during the holiday season nowadays, I have begun to take a kind of a low-key approach to Christmas celebration. There are always wonderful illumination festivals in the parks and arcades, light shows that make a Times Square New Year’s Eve look positively sedate by comparison; I will visit as many of these as I can squeeze in between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. With my friends I will sit glued in front of the flat screen, watching Japanese-subtitled versions of silver screen holiday classics: Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas. Sometimes someone asks me if that was what Christmas was like when I was a kid, (never mind that all of those movies predate my time on this planet by a fair bit). “Maybe,” I reply, but I am not entirely convinced, for cynicism, once it takes up occupancy in one’s heart, is a difficult lodger to evict. Still, this year I am going to try. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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