Mount Fuji

The meaning of Christmas 


(Originally featured in the Japan Times Weekly Student Times of Dec.18th, 1998)

This is the season when British people start searching their souls about what Christmas is really about. They bemoan the commercialization of this religious festival and sneer at those who rush around the shops frenziedly buying food and presents for the season. Those who bemoan and sneer usually have to admit that they too are prey to the commercial tyranny of Christmas and have decorated their Christmas tree and listened to their children's usually unrealistic requests for extravagant presents. The sneerers too are busy buying and consuming.

Those who really are against the Christmas spirit of goodwill and good cheer will be named "Scrooge", after the character in Dickens' novel A Christmas Carol, by their friends and colleagues. That goes for anyone, whether they are religious or not. The religious meaning of Christmas as the birthday of Jesus Christ is not the main focus anymore. But the idea that Christmas is a time to show kindness to others, a tradition that may have its roots in Christianity, does still play a big role.

It can take many forms, such as sending Christmas cards to all your long-lost friends, or giving up your own Christmas to help homeless people who have nowhere to go and no family with whom to celebrate. It can mean making donations to charity — if not directly, by buying goods marketed by charities to raise money. It can mean checking in on your elderly next door neighbor who lives alone. It can even mean not forgetting to leave some crumbs out for the birds in the cold winter. These kinds of thing are really the important parts of Christmas.

I confess that all this means I spend most of Christmas feeling guilty. My cards go unwritten, my acts of charity are few. I wish I were better. That feeling of guilt becomes greater in Japan, where Christmas on the whole has a hollow ring for me. For here it seems to me that only the bright lights, present giving and feasting of Christmas have been imported, without the spirit of goodwill to others. Correct me if I am wrong.

I am not saying that there is no charitable instinct in Japan, but in any country I think it is useful to have a season where acts of charity are a natural part of living. But before I sound like I am moralizing I would like to add that Christmas should also be about having fun.

The reason it takes place in the middle of winter is not, strictly speaking, because that is when Jesus was born. There were winter festivals in Europe at this time even before the advent of Christ. The reason is that winter is so dark and miserable in Europe. Japan, too, needs cheering after a bad year in which the economy has gone from bad to worse. So I'd like to wish readers a Merry Christmas, but ask you to think of others too.

Editor's note: As far as the Japanese economy is concerned, nothing much seems to have changed!
Author Juliet Hindell truly distinguished herself as Tokyo correspondent for the BBC back in the 1990s.