“This is a day you are to commemorate;” Exodus 12:14a
It was our first Christmas Day in Japan and everything felt wrong when I surveyed the world around me. Children were in school, the banks were open and the stores were full of customers. Besides the beautiful blanket of snow covering the ground, there was no visible evidence of Christmas. In the preceding weeks, we had managed to procure a Christmas tree, wrapped our collection of gifts and even tracked down a place that sold turkeys as part of our preparation to celebrate Jesus’ birth. But Christmas was obviously not a major event in Japan.
Many years later, Christmas is still not recognized as a national holiday in Japan, but it is certainly on the nation’s radar. For example, Christmas music is now commonly played in numerous venues. Christmas trees and decorations are sold everywhere. People are increasingly putting up Christmas lights on their homes and giant light displays known as “iruminēshon” (illumination) have become popular attractions. Christmas Eve is generally considered to be a romantic time for young couples in love who celebrate the occasion by going out for a special meal, exchanging gifts and visiting a local iruminēshon. Japanese have even developed their own genre of Christmas music composed and performed by famous artists. A sample of this is a song by Takeuchi Mariya called “Sutekina Kurisumasu” (“Lovely Christmas”). Local merchants are naturally very enthusiastic about anything that puts more money in their pockets, which also accounts for the increasing popularity of other foreign special days like Easter, Valentine’s Day and, more recently, Halloween. Tokyo Disneyland has particularly capitalized on these trends featuring special events, displays, menu items and merchandise that match these festive occasions.
Of course, Japan has its own standard holidays like Constitution Day, Sports Day, Children’s Day, Respect for the Elderly Day, the Emperor’s Birthday, Labor Day, Marine Day and Vernal Equinox, but these do not easily lend themselves to celebratory events. Churches throughout Japan are understandably keen to capitalize on people’s interest in Christmas, so they typically sponsor a variety of meetings designed to share the true meaning of Christmas and the wonder of God’s visitation to Earth.
Special days are often set aside around the world to commemorate significant historical events and this was also true of God’s people. Following the miraculous phenomenon associated with their liberation from Egyptian bondage, God instructed the Israelites to commemorate the penultimate plague, Passover, with a unique celebration that was to be observed on an annual basis (Exodus 12). As God continued on other occasions to intervene in history to deliver His people, additional festive events were instituted and observed by generations that followed. The stated purpose of these special days was to recall the mighty deeds of God as an act of worship. But God’s ultimate intervention in the affairs of man went unnoticed by all except for a handful of shepherds and a few faithful individuals who longed for His appearing. Unexpectedly, and inexplicably, God voluntarily took on human flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus came to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21) and this arrival is the wondrous event we commemorate with every Christmas season. Immanuel. God is with us. Let us bow in worship.