Christmas in Japan, Switzerland, elsewhere

Confiserie Sprüngli Zürich Christmas Chocolates

A reader emailed me asking, how people celebrate Christmas in Japan.

My answer to that would honestly be… “Not very well.”

It really has to do with the fact that there is a lack of tradition. Japan is not a Christian country, and the number of people who identify themselves as Christian is miniscule.

And even if you grow up in a Christian household, the traditions are just not there. My father’s family was unique in that they were indeed Christian (both my grandparents were Salvation Army officers, though they both worked at a Salvation Army hospital rather than…religious activities.) But did they celebrate Christmas in fancy ways? Nope.

Christmas in Japan is mostly, or maybe even all, about the decorations and the lights and the special things to eat. By which I mean mainly the ubiquitous Christmas Cake, which is just a regular decorated cake with Christmas-y flourishes. Most Christmas cakes sold at shops have strawberries on them, for the cheery red color. Strawberries in December! Not good. There’s a reason for fruit cake…in December, you mostly get dried and sugared fruits.

Above all though, Christmas in Japan means commercialism. You feel mildly or overtly pressured to buy gifts, even though you’re probably not a Christian and neither is your recipient. The Christmas gift thing gets a bit jumbled up by the tradition year-end gift called oseibo, which is sent to people you want to say thanks to, or suck up to, or generally want to be on the good side of. (In-laws, bosses, clients, and the like.)

So, in my humble opinion, Christmas in Japan sucks. The really magical part of this time of the year is just a week later, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

It was only when my family moved out into the world to live in England and America, then later on when I went wandering around Europe on my own, that I experienced what Christmas could be. In my biased view, Christmas in Europe is where it’s at. (I’m not even accounting for the truly religious parts of that much, such as attending mass.) Christmas in the U.S. is indeed very colorful and cheerful and festive, but it’s also awfully commercial. You have all the Instant Traditions (doing something two years in a row is not a tradition, imho), the rash of special Xmas CDs from various hip-hop artists filling the air, the blindingly colorful holiday sweaters adorning overly ample bodies, and the commercials. Oy vay the commercials.

That is not to say of course that commercialism has not taken over in Europe too. Oh boy has it ever. But still, there are the long-running traditions that keep things grounded. Decorations tend to be a bit more restrained. The food and drink is rooted in old customs. The cold air seems to always smell faintly of spices.

nur_gluhweinstall.jpg

I think I am lucky though: I get to enjoy Christmas, and still follow up with a Japanese style New Year’s. My build-up cynicism melts away, and I think, what a wonderful time of the year it is. It’s also a bitter-sweet time because I am so far away from most of my family. If you can spend Christmas and New Year’s with your family, wherever that might be, that is the best of all.

In no particular order, some of my favorite Christmas things (what are yours?):

  • Christmas dinner in England. Christmas pudding, mince pies, turkey or goose with bread sauce…
  • Stollen from Germany, especially Dresden
  • Real pannetone from Italy, especially from Milan. Once you have tasted a really good, buttery pannetone you can’t go back.
  • Christmas nougat in Provence, rich with honey
  • Glühwein, mulled wine, to warm you from head to toe as you totter around a Christmas market
  • In Switzerland: Wienachtsguetzli, little Christmas nibbles such as Mailander cookies, butter-sugar cookies, and Grittibänz, figure shaped breads…especially the ones from Sprüngli
  • Lebkuchen, spiced filled gingerbread, from Germany
  • Handmade Christmas stockings hanging from a mantelpiece, even if they’re empty
  • The way one of our local bakeries decorates their facade to look like a gingerbread house:

A Swiss bakery/pastry shop decked out for Christmas (2)

  • My favorite Christkindlmärkts: in Salzburg, Strasbourg, and Aix-en-Provence. (But if you have to do just one representative market, the crowded and rather overwhelming one in Nurenberg is the one…)
  • My favorite Christmas decorations: handmade balls made with lavendar and ribbons, from Provence

Lavender stalk Christmas ornaments from France

  • The best Christmas in New York, my old stomping grounds: the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.
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Oh wow, Christmas in Europe

Oh wow, Christmas in Europe just sounds simply DIVINE. I’ve never been there before, but I’m going to England and some northern European countries this summer, so I’m very excited.

Being Chinese, I totally agree with you when it comes to not really celebrating Christmas. My friends here in Canada are always a little bewildered when I explain to them that Christmas is for going out partying with friends; the family time is left for Chinese New Year. But yeah, the commercialism in Hong Kong/China is still there—all the lights, presents, restaurants peddling Christmas dinners (none of which containing turkey, btw). After living in Canada for a long time, we’ve obviously adopted some more western Christmas customs, but it’s definitely a little different. I don’t think my parents will EVER consider a real tree, while I know some of my friends think that having a fake tree would be blasphemous!

Vincci | 5 December, 2007 - 23:13

Christmas in Japan

I’m surprised you didn’t mention the ultimate Japanese Christmas tradition, KFC fried chicken!

http://www.tanutech.com/japan/jxmas.html

Amstrad | 6 December, 2007 - 00:47

Christmas in America is very commercialized

Yes I agree Christmas in America is very commercialized. The funny thing is that in America now we’re having the ‘politically correct’ war in that big marketers such as Wal-mart, Target, Macy’s etc… are questioning the term “Merry Christmas” in their advertising and have changed it to “Happy Holidays”. Christmas Trees are now being called Family Trees or something ridiculous like that. To me Christmas has always been about Christ (I am Catholic BTW) and about family and of course lovely morning mass with choral singing. But that’s Christmas for me, I’m sure other Americans feel that Christmas is about family, getting together and of course shopping (Christmas is the 2nd best holiday that Marketers use to discount all their stuff. Our first holiday is Thanksgiving ^^)

BTW I love reading your blog and look forward to more Yummy recipes.

Su | 6 December, 2007 - 00:51

Yes I agree Christmas in

Yes I agree Christmas in America is very commercialized. The funny thing is that in America now we’re having the ‘politically correct’ war in that big marketers such as Wal-mart, Target, Macy’s etc… are questioning the term “Merry Christmas” in their advertising and have changed it to “Happy Holidays”. Christmas Trees are now being called Family Trees or something ridiculous like that. To me Christmas has always been about Christ (I am Catholic BTW) and about family and of course lovely morning mass with choral singing. But that’s Christmas for me, I’m sure other Americans feel that Christmas is about family, getting together and of course shopping (Christmas is the 2nd best holiday where Marketers discount all their stuff. Our first holiday is Thanksgiving ^^)

BTW I love reading your blog and look forward to more Yummy recipes.

Su | 6 December, 2007 - 00:54

I’ve to agree about

I’ve to agree about Christmas in Europe. We had a few there and still continue some traditions established in our time there. Like you mentioned, good pannetone and torrone/turron, for me personally lebkuchen glazed with the chocolate bottoms. All but one friend here hates lebkuchen, interestingly enough. Best of all, it is still about Christmas being Christmas, a religious holiday-holy day. Thankfully it’s still like this for a good many ways in the Philippines, Central/South America, and perhaps in East Timor, the only other Asian Catholic country? Traditions because of religion.
On a slightly different note at the Japanese supermarket today I asked myself the same questions, about how good the Christmas Cake looks, but where are the strawberries coming from?! Greenhouses?
There’s a chestnut variety too. Then similarly, I figured that the New Year’s is what’s really looked forward to with the kadomatsu, mochi, and daruma burning.

MasPinaSarap | 6 December, 2007 - 09:36

the chestnut kind

MasPinasSarap, actually the chestnut kind and the very popular small cake, the Mont Blanc (monburan) is derived from a cake/pastry that’s popular in Switzerland…made of chestnut paste (which in turn in France is called marron suisse). Here it’s sold in tubes even.

I’ve never been to South or Central America, but I’d love to around Christmas time for sure! And now I’d love to visit the Phillipines around that time too!

Amstrad yep, nothing like a Colonel’s bucket for Xmas dinner!

maki | 6 December, 2007 - 14:11

Cake Order

Hello! I stumbled across your blog looking for the monburan cake. I am trying to order it as a surprise for my friend, but really have no idea where to start looking. I’m from the US, so it may not be available here.

Thanks!

Anthony | 26 March, 2008 - 07:49

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving reminds me…whenever i’m in the States aroudn that time I do try to get together with my sister and father for Thanksgiving dinner. When my mother and stepfather were still living there, we’d always have a big Thanksgiving dinner, inviting most of the chefs and some of the waiters etc from my mom’s restaurant. The same would happen for Xmas (for New Years most of the chefs would be off for golf down south!) For Xmas, we’d have a huge prime rib from Lobel’s, which my sister and I would make, and tons and tons of sashimi…prepared by the chefs of course! Those were the days.

maki | 6 December, 2007 - 14:18

You really captured Christmas in Europe beautifully!

At least, my experience with Christmas in Europe. For 15 years, I was able to be there nearly every Christmas and I miss those Christmas experiences now.

My German friends really knew how to celebrate the season: low-key on the bright lights, but always an Advent wreath with lit candles; inviting friends and family for afternoon Christmas cookies with coffee every weekend; Lebkuchen (I love the glazed best, no chocolate); Weihnachtsschokoladen, especially the Christmas spiced chocolate bars; Christmas markets and Glühwein; and the best Christmas music, preferably played by a trombone choir.

I miss the tall evergreens in Bavaria, laden with snow — almost as much as I miss the Christmas markets. And the Nürnberg bratwurst, grilled over a wood fire and served on a crusty roll with mustard. And the ubiquitous molded Santa chocolate figures.

Have you visited Wernigerode or Wurzburg during the Christmas season? Their Christmas markets are my favorites, although I have yet to see Strasbourg at Christmas.

frances | 6 December, 2007 - 16:14

Exactly! I figured it must

Exactly! I figured it must be from the Mont Blanc, since it’s so popular at the Japanese cafe/bakeries more regularly throughout the year. I’m especially fond of the Japanese take on European desserts, I find them lighter and more delicate, and somehow cleaner tasting, if that makes any sense. I’d like to learn how to make them sometime. -Perhaps Hidemi Sugino will publish more English/Japanese books-

Christmas is about the best season to visit the Philippines, beautiful lighted Parols -stars- fancy Kakanin -ricecake- and Special Ensaymada! They’ve actually started decorating the Vienna Christmas market with Parols. As a bonus it’s the dry season for the north as well.

MasPinaSarap | 6 December, 2007 - 21:43

the whole commercialism

the whole commercialism about christmas in japan is exactly the same here in Hong Kong. My family, even though being Cantonese to the very roots still manage to pull out a nicely decorated tree and some mince pies each year, even if dinner would never involve roast turkey!

Stephanie | 17 December, 2007 - 19:36

Christmas in europe

Christmas in Europe is really special, and the feeling really is differnt from elsewhere in the world! I think if you really want to experience christmas then you need to try places like the UK ( England, Scotland, wales, Northern ireland, it doesn’t matter), Germany, Switzerland, and northern countries. The sparkle, and feeling of home is there.
If you think about it, the image of a snowman, or a chrsitams tree, on a cobbled street really originated in places like victorian England and Germany. I live in the UK, England to be precise, and Christmas is an incredible time of year here.

Even if you arn’t religious, its about family, gathering around the tree opening presents, and having chrsitmas dinner.You can sometimes hear church bells in the distance, and my family has gone to a service before ( we are definitly not religious) and sang hymns! We don’t have Thanks giving over here, so christmas is the main holiday in the winter I think. New years is good, but it doesn’t feel as family orientated as christmas does! Not to say it isn’t commercial, of course it is, but its lost none of its magic!

You know the thought of strawberries on christmas cake is just odd. You are right, its dried fruits, and its perfectly tasty the way it is lol. Strawberries are something you eat with cream in the summer! By the way, do the Japanese have Mince pies? I have always wondered!

Happy christmas everyone!

Steph | 24 December, 2007 - 03:56

Re: Christmas in Japan, Switzerland, elsewhere

Nice Writeup.
Lovely Stuff.
I really like this :) Great Job!
Thank you so much for sharing great creative Chocolate resources to follow! I really appreciate it.
This is great and just what i've looking for. Thanks a lot.

Shrey Patel | 2 November, 2013 - 11:12

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