Christmas. Respun and reinterpreted through so many global and ideological perspectives, it’s a funny thing. There are some who venerate church tradition, viewing it as a time of ritual and contemplation. Some let its celebration pass them by, as an extra-Biblical carnival of human origin, removed from the historical detail of Jesus’ life. Some wholly embrace the light-hearted appeal of lights, gifts, food, and not much else. Christmas is characterised by a curious mixture of deity and human culture, fittingly enough for the celebration which specifically invites us to ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’.
The celebration of Christmas in December is a cultural tradition originating in the West (and, indeed, Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate on an entirely different date). The popular explanation for marking 25 December is the Christianising of a Roman celebration of December winter solstice; the early term ‘yule’ also derives from Germanic and Anglo-Saxon terms referring to winter solstice. Other evidence suggests that the celebration of Jesus’ birth on 25 December derives from the dating of his miraculous conception to 25 March, also the perceived date of the beginning of creation, and incidentally the Spring Equinox, which also connotes new life. Whichever is the true explanation, the association with the ‘spring’ equinox and the ‘winter’ solstice emphasise that the celebration of Christmas on 25 December has decidedly Northern Hemisphere origins.
For the students of the IFES fellowship around the world, the nuances surrounding Christmas abound. It may not be an easy time of year for many, and in some ways Christmas illustrates the challenges faced in student ministry. An interesting Christmas case study is the dynamic culture of Japan. Developed and prosperous, it has little historic Christianised cultural influence, unlike many parts of the IFES fellowship. In fact, Japanese culture does not recognise the same linear boundaries between different religious beliefs and none as many other parts of the world do. The majority of people self-identify as nonreligious, in the sense that they reject religious belief that appears to be abnormal or excessive, without meaning that they don’t participate in religious activities.
For a holiday so deeply rooted in Western tradition and identity, and yet ever deeper rooted in the infinite mysteries of Emmanuel, God with us, a reality for all nations, what is it like to be a Christian student in Japan at Christmas time? We hear from Arisa, a student with KGK, the IFES-affiliated student movement in Japan, her reflections on navigating the cultural complexities surrounding Christmas in Japan.
‘I feel like people are using Christmas wrong’
Arisa admits that she struggles with the lack of reference to Jesus in Christmas imagery in Japan. While Santa, reindeer and snowmen are abundant, there is nothing else. Rather than referencing the light that was coming into the world, the Word become flesh, Christmas is seen as a time to simply spread happiness – and indulge in traditions that may seem unconventional elsewhere. A wildly successful 1970s advertising campaign, for instance, ensured that eating KFC fried chicken has become a popular tradition.
Arisa tells us that ‘some people use the Christmas season as a sexual opportunity’. Indeed, Christmas Eve is seen as a time for couples in many ways, much as Valentine’s Day might be elsewhere. And Arisa sees a general self-absorption fall over people at Christmas, which ‘should be a time of humility. I’m sad that people are using Christmas to crown themselves’.
Let them eat cake
Arisa can see the goodness in a Japanese Christmas, too. It lifts her spirits to see people who aren’t Christians celebrating. People enjoy eating cake, which is a big part of the Christmas celebration in Japan, and spending time with family and friends. Although they are in some ways ‘crowning themselves’, and not acknowledging Christmas as the celebration of Jesus’ birth, they are joyful. Arisa identifies this as God’s mercy and common grace – that even though people are not celebrating Jesus, God gives them blessings to enjoy at the Christmas season.
This does not simply apply in Japan. These traditions that have developed in this place, from cultural influences removed from the deeply-rooted Christian past heritage of Europe, may seem at first glance a little more removed from Biblical realities, from the Christmas imperative ‘come, let us adore him’. But are they really? Around the world, isn’t Christmas always mixed with human cultural rituals? Even in the hearts of individual Christians, there will always be a Romans 7 tension between worship and more worldly concerns. And we will never be able to escape the powerful influence of the cultural ideas with which we have been nurtured.
Oh come, let us adore him
Arisa astutely resolves this tension. She shows that the differences that matter aren’t the ones between different cultural perspectives on Christmas, even between cultures that have more religious traditions, and those where Christ is almost entirely absent from Christmas. She points out that everywhere, regardless of cultural context, Christmas isn’t really the point – Jesus is. Cutting through the complexities of culture, the dichotomy that really matters is between using Christmas to seek after Jesus for yourself, beholding, seeing, adoring, trusting, and hoping, or passing him by to seek after your happiness your own way, without reference to him.
It’s a choice we all must make, a choice irrelevant to cultural context. Choosing to either crown yourself, or crown King Jesus, is not a Japanese issue, but a human issue. And Arisa goes on to point out that while Christmas demands this choice of us, it also marks the same threshold in a different way. Christmas bridges the darkness, which speaks loud and clear of the sinfulness of humanity and the need for salvation, ‘and the bright side is that God sent his Son to save us, because he loves us.’
Wherever we come from, and whatever the world around us wants to spend their Christmas doing, let’s come to Bethlehem again, ‘joyful and triumphant’.