Like a lot of kids in a lot of countries, little Yoshihito Yoshida was shocked when his elementary-school buddies told him there was no Santa Claus.
While he was growing up in the 1970s, his non-Christian parents dangled the promise of Claus-borne gifts as a way of encouraging good behavior. (The other option was a visit from a scary Japanese demon called a namahage.) But they never told him that there was any connection between Christmas and Christianity - "Never, ever," he says firmly.
This is Christmas for many people in Japan: a holiday laden with Western imagery but with almost none of the content. Some Japanese are stunned that Christmas has anything at all to do with Jesus Christ.
As an adult, Mr. Yoshida is still vague on the Christian connection. He works for a tony Tokyo department store that is currently awash in Christmas. It's bedecked with evergreen, tinkling with tinsel, and packed with seasonal shoppers. Yet Yoshida defines the occasion this way: "It's a holiday for children and for being with those you love."
The Very Rev. Bartholomew Takeuchi, rector of the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew in Tokyo, tells a story about a group of young people who walked into his Anglican sanctuary one year toward the end of December. "Isn't that interesting," one said, marveling at the decorations. "Even the church has a Christmas party!"
Only about 1 percent of Japan's 125 million people are Christians, but Christendom's premier holiday is widely celebrated as a secular festival. This Christmas Eve, as in the past, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will likely have some cake with his family, says spokesman Akitaka Saiki, who notes, "They're not Christians."
Christian converts and missionaries in the mid-16th century were the first to celebrate the holiday, but those observances soon stopped or were hidden. From the very late 1500s until the mid-1800s, Christians were persecuted.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a revival of Yuletide celebrations as Christianity was reintroduced, and some big stores started using the occasion as a promotional opportunity.
A day to honor Emperor Taisho
But after Emperor Taisho died on Dec. 25, 1926, the day was reserved to honor his memory, and any sort of open celebration was banned. Christians could hold quiet services on the holiday and subdued parties on the 26th, but during the years of authoritarian rule leading up to World War II, even that was risky.
The end of the war and the US occupation of Japan brought Christmas out of the closet. As US troops and civilians began to decorate their camps and quarters in December 1945, recalls Mr. Takeuchi, many Japanese wondered what the occasion was. Then the penny dropped. "Ooh, it's Christmas," Takeuchi says, recalling his own surprise. Pretty much right away, he adds, "Most people, including myself, forgot about Emperor Taisho Day."
As far as Christmas goes, Japan has never looked back. Bars and cabarets cited the occasion as an excuse to have a party. Bakers started using the holiday to market elaborate edible confections called "decoration cakes." Retailers of all kinds encouraged the exchange of gifts.
A Kentucky Fried Christmas
Along the way, some uniquely Japanese ways of celebrating Christmas have taken hold.
Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan Ltd., started promoting Colonel Sanders' poultry products as a holiday meal in 1974. Last year, more than 2 million customers converged on KFC's Japan stores from Dec. 23 to 25, meaning that more people enjoyed a Kentucky Fried Christmas than there are Christians in Japan.
Customers have to book their KFC in advance, because the stores do five times as much business during the Christmas crunch as on average days.
Hotels got in the act too, especially during the boom years of the late 1980s, by marketing to couples the night of the 24th as a "romantic Christmas."
Of course, Japan's Christians are clear about why the holiday is celebrated. Kazuyo Naito's December calendar is filled with Christmas events, most revolving around her local branch of the United Church of Christ in Japan.
There's a children's play, a church lunch the Sunday before Christmas, and a service and concert on Christmas Eve. That evening, the young people in the congregation walk around the neighborhood and sing carols for Christians who can't make it to church.
This year Ms. Naito will gather with her mother, her son and daughter-in-law, and their three children for a Christmas dinner. They will open presents and sing hymns and carols - a celebration that echoes similar observances all over the world. "It is a joy for us to celebrate Christmas," she explains, "which we do because it's the birthday of Jesus Christ."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society