Who is Christmas for?

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MERI KURISUMASU! That’s how many people say it in Japan. Only a small minority of Japanese people are Christian, and yet Christmas itself is wildly popular. There are, of course, some differences. For instance, instead of Handel’s Messiah there are all sorts of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There are even sponsored runs with hundreds of people dressed in Santa Claus suits—and, of course, Godzilla (a national mascot) outlined in Christmas tree lights! And yet, none of this has made the Japanese people any more (or less) Christian than they were before.

Which makes it all stand in peculiar contrast with an attitude we sometimes encounter in North America. In some quarters, it is now considered in poor taste to say Meri Kurisumasu in any form. Indeed, one U.S. college went so far as to suggest that even private parties should not look like Christmas parties lest others feel excluded. The intention is laudable, but in Japan it would be incomprehensible. Who is being excluded when it is so easy to put your own interpretation on the festival? A Muslim (here as well as there) would be more likely to feel excluded by the liquor at the party than by any mention of Jesus’ birth. Indeed, if anything, the Qur’an is more explicit about Jesus’ virginal conception than the Christian Bible! Still less excluded would be the vast majority of Japanese who follow Shinto or one of the forms of Buddhism—an inclusion that is all the more striking as neither one is very clear about the existence of a universal God.

So what is it they’re all celebrating? We know what the Christian minority is celebrating, but what about everyone else? There is a hint. We mentioned earlier that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is almost universally popular at Christmas. One of the things that sets that Symphony apart from the others is its final movement—a choral setting of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy. Many of us are familiar with it in the form of a tune used for the hymn “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee.” The Japanese have taken Schiller’s much more ambiguous composition to their hearts.

What does this mean to us? It is a reminder that Christmas is a multi-textured festival, and that we need not apologize for any of it, for its deepest meaning is Joy. Christians assert that the source of that Joy is what happened at Bethlehem. Beneath all the festive carry on—even the lights on Godzilla—there is a Deep Magic, and the name of that Magic is Christ: the instrumental Maker of all things lying in a manger and needing our care. Christmas is a multi-textured Ode to Joy that can be celebrated wherever Joy and Courtesy are. Only fear is excluded. Share all the textures of Christmas with everyone this year, and wish them a Meri Kurisumasu! Christmas is for everyone.

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