My Christmas in Japan

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Missionary reflects on unique Japanese Christmas experiences

“Is Santa Claus from the Bible?”

This sounds like a funny question to most of us, but it wasn't unusual coming from my English students in Japan. Most people in Japan believe Santa Claus is the reason for Christmas.

I had the privilege of teaching English in Japanese Mennonite Brethren churches for five years in Osaka, Japan. It was an amazing opportunity and at times very challenging.

Celebrating Christmas in another culture can be an interesting experience. Only about 1 percent of the Japanese population is Christian so Christmas is not a national holiday. The first year I was in Japan I remember walking through a train station on Christmas Day watching people go on their way as if it was a normal day. Businessmen talking on their phones rushing through the station, women shopping and children on their way home from school. As I watched everyone my eyes filled with tears and my heart broke for a nation that has little knowledge of Christ but is desperate for a savior.

Christmas is acknowledged in Japan but is still somewhat of a foreign concept. Many people try to emulate the ideas of Christmas shown in American movies. I was always baffled to hear Christmas carols ringing through the stores even though people cannot understand the lyrics. Most people celebrate at home and may give a small gift to their children.

Surprisingly, the traditional food eaten on Christmas is fried chicken and cake. In fact, many people order ahead or wait in long lines for chicken from a popular fast food chain. This comes from images in movies of families eating turkey on holidays.

There is also a romantic celebration to Christmas. Young dating couples will have a romantic dinner or go out somewhere special and exchange gifts.

Because New Year's Day is the most important holiday, Christmas is only celebrated for one day. By December 26 all signs of Christmas are gone, and everyone is preparing for a new year. I always felt sad to see Christmas end so abruptly. While Christmas is important to Japanese Christians there is still a cultural pull to emphasize the New Year's celebration.

Leading up to Christmas, churches will have many events to reach out to the community. As a teacher I didactivities with my students to teach them about Christmas, including candlelight services during classes. One student said to me, “I didn't know Christmas is Jesus' birthday. That's why the church celebrates it!” I pray this Christmas season many more people will come to the realization that Christmas is a celebration of Christ's birth to be celebrated everyday of the year!

Amberly Hulzebos is an elementary school teacher and a member of Community Bible Church in Mountian Lake, Minn. She served for five years with MB Mission in Japan as an Englishteacher in Japanese MB churches.

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