Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Memories of Japan: Christmas Cake

Today is Wednesday, December 25, 2013.

Merii Kurisumasu! 

That's what the Japanese say, but strangely enough, not on Christmas Day.  Rather, all their celebrating is done on Christmas Eve, and it's a strange little celebration.  Fewer than 1% of the population is estimated to be Christian, so the festivities have little or nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.  Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are normal working days in Japan, by the way.

The main aspect to the celebration, when I was there, was "Christmas cake," which is generally speaking just a white layer cake decorated for Christmas. It may also be a yellow cake or a chocolate cake. Sometimes there is a cream center or there may be strawberries baked inside the cake.  These cakes are sold in little shops in and around the train and subway station entrances starting a few days before Christmas.  Typically, the breadwinner of the family picks up a cake on his way home from work on the 24th.  The family has it for dessert after dinner, and that's about it.  Younger children may get a gift "from Santa" (but never from anyone else) until they are too old to believe in Santa Claus.  Family members don't give gifts to each other.

My sister-in-law seemed especially surprised that I had no idea what "Christmas cake" was, and that I had never seen or eaten one before, since I was Christian at the time, and from the United States, where Christmas is celebrated by a majority of folks. The Japanese borrow customs from a lot of different countries, so I thought maybe they'd borrowed this one from somewhere else.  They had, but they gave it their own twist.  It appears that the term "Christmas cake" probably refers most often to what we call "fruitcake" here in the United States, and that is a custom of ours, although it seems to get mostly negative reviews from people.  Having recently read some blogs written by other gaijin in Japan, I now know that I was not alone in my confusion over "Christmas cake."  The cake sold in Japan as "Christmas cake" is definitely not fruitcake.

These days, there's another cultural quirk having to do with Christmas cake. The cake shops in Japan always try to sell all their Christmas cake by the end of the day on the 25th.  After that, they are considered "old" and out of date, but you can buy them at a huge discount the next day.  (And they still taste pretty good.)  Women who are 25 and still unmarried are now called "unsold Christmas cake."  The term used to be "old miss" (their version of our "old maid") and perhaps that term is still used, as well.  In a country where people still do "arranged marriage," the idea that a girl who is "too old" can be had for a little less has power, because the groom's family really does send the bride's family gifts, and the idea is that they don't have to be quite so generous with the gifts if the girl is older.  One blogger commented that since women are marrying a bit later in Japan these days, the "Christmas cake" epithet is no longer used quite as much.  I'm sincerely glad to hear that, because it has always bugged me that unmarried men are perfectly suitable for marriage at any age, while a woman becomes more unmarriageable as time passes.  (And this is as true in the United States as it is in Japan.)

There's another Christmas custom that developed after I left Japan.  It seems that Kentucky Fried Chicken's marketing department has hit a gold mine.  They promoted a Christmas Chicken Dinner package that you can reserve in advance.  Most stores sell out on Christmas Eve, so they tend to have other items available for their customers who are too late for the Christmas Dinner package.  Nowadays, many younger Japanese have come to believe that Americans and Europeans all have fried chicken for our Christmas Dinner.  All the KFC outlets in Japan have the requisite statue of Colonel Sanders standing outside the entrance, and at Christmas, he has on a red suit, or at least a red hat.  The wonders of marketing!

Another custom that has cropped up since I left is that of romantic couples having a special dinner date on Christmas Eve.  This custom got started with a boost from TV dramas that featured couples going out at Christmastime.  This is supposed to be the time that couples reveal their feelings for one another.  Of course, if they don't come clean on Christmas Eve, there is always Valentine's Day on February 14 or White Day on March 14.  (More about those later.)  In any event, this is one of those days when couples can give gifts to one another.  The more expensive the gift, the deeper the feelings, of course. 

One young man from the United States who was working in Tokyo wrote a really cute blog about how his Japanese girlfriend called him up and asked him if he'd "forgotten anything."  He couldn't think of a thing.  He realized that she seemed upset that they hadn't made any plans for Christmas Eve, so after some delicate question and answer, he decided it would be smart to ask her out to dinner that night.  The couple figured out a meeting time and place, and the guy showed up after work, wearing the same slightly grungy outfit he'd worn to the office.  She was all dressed up, naturally.  She was visibly upset that he suggested an inexpensive little bar that they'd gone to many times before.  Of course, the girl's expectation was that since her boyfriend was a foreigner and because "all foreigners celebrate Christmas," her boyfriend must know all about the custom of taking a girl out on Christmas Eve.  The Japanese never seem to realize that it would be a smart move not to assume that just because they do something that seems Western in their eyes, that all Westerners must do the same.  At least the girl in question wasn't expecting a diamond ring.  Yet.   The young man had to explain to her that for Christians, at least, Christmas is celebrated in the home, among family, or at Church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. 

I can't tell you how many times the Japanese assumed that I must like something or do something or know about something just because they did it that way in Japan, thinking that it was a gaijin custom when it was really just a Japanese twist on something some gaijin did.  The one that comes to mind just now is the "custom" of eating a fried egg on top of a hamburger.  You do that, don't you?  You don't?  I thought all Americans did that!

But back to Christmas. It's kind of sandwiched in there between other holidays, anyway.  The 23rd of December is the Emperor's Birthday, which is mostly celebrated by crowds of people who are allowed into the Imperial Palace grounds to view the Emperor and Imperial Family members as they wave to the public from a balcony. The Emperor makes a short speech, which is carried live on TV.  That's about it. 

There is a year-end gift giving custom, too, that has nothing to do with Christmas.  I'll say more about that in another post.  The true jewel in the Japanese calendar is New Year's Day, and the days just before and after January 1.  I'll say more about that, too. 

For now, メリ–クリスマス。 :-)

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