Japanese marketers are well aware that Christmas ranks second in popularity only to New Year's -- above even the Bon holiday in August, when people flock back to their hometowns to pay respect to their ancestors.

Here, as in many of the 150-plus countries where Christmas is celebrated, Santa's sack of goodies has largely come to be what the whole thing is about. In a local twist, winter bonuses -- often worth well over a month's salary -- fuel a shopping frenzy at the nation's department stores and big-ticket meccas like "Electric Town" in Tokyo's Akihabara district.

The result: Supermarket and department store sales of clothing, accessories, furniture, electrical appliances, household equipment, gift certificates and (not to forget our palates) food and beverages swelled to 2.1 trillion yen in December last year, more than a third higher than the monthly average, according to data from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.