Christmas in Japan

How Japan has put meaning into Christmas for me.

Christmas in Japan has caused me to dive into depths of pondering into which I would never have plunged had I not left my own culture.

A Japanese Christmas is so 'Jingle Bellie' so 'Santa Clausie.' Many would not even connect the festivities with Christ. My first reaction as a young priest was to become critical at the gross commercialisation. In reaction I emphasized a spiritual Christmas.

But just a minute. This is where I started to ponder. This is when, I feel, a spot of wisdom came with age. There is no such thing as a purely spiritual Christmas.

Our God took on real human flesh. He did not become a pure spirit angel. The birth of Jesus in a drafty stable is not a purely spiritual event. That is the meaning of Jn 1:14, ‘The word was made flesh’ is niku, which is the common word for meat. Now that is thought provoking.

In the third century the Gnostics said that the spirit and soul are good, but the body and material things are bad. Threads of this insidious heresy were revived in 18th century Jansenism, traces of which still persist today. We should not belittle the body and material things as if they distract us from the spiritual.

On the contrary the material is the normal gateway to the spirit. The Incarnation means that we humans meet God through the human Jesus. His human heart shows us divine love.

Jesus came for the whole human person. Christmas shows us that there is a mysterious but real unity between the human and the divine, between the spiritual and the secular, between the body and the soul. So let us rejoice in our humanity and in the material. That is the hidden message of Christmas.

I live in Yokohama, a city of 3.7 million people. Even in the suburbs private houses are bedecked with blinking coloured lights. Santa Claus too is everywhere. For example a half marathon is run by all wearing red Santa hats. Railing against the absence of Christ in Christmas gets nowhere. I can't beat them, so I join them. I, too, have lights around the Church - they surround a life-size crib, made and painted by three of the parishioners.

After Christmas Masses I take off the vestments and don a Santa Claus outfit. (From October my white beard is untrimmed and is a genuine Santa length by Dec. 25). Crowds of children from the local kindergartens and grade schools line up and receive a small gift from Santa Claus Barry Cairns. I tell them about the real Saint Nicholas who was noted for his kindness. I ask the children to do one act of kindness to others. Kindness is essential to Christmas.

I see the surface celebration of Christmas as a modern expression of 'there was no room at the inn.' Two thousand years ago people did not receive Jesus, but he still came. He still comes today. We know the true meaning of Christmas so let us prepare the manger for him in the stable of our hearts.

Let us really share with others the material joys of Christmas. Our warmth can transmit the true message of Christmas to the world.

Fr Barry Cairns has been a Columban missionary priest in Japan since 1956.

Listen to: Christmas in Japan
(Duration: 4:47mins, MP3, 2.18MB).


Read more from The Far East, November/December 2012