In many places, celebrations will be getting into full swing. But if you’re in Japan, by the time you read this, Christmas (kurisumasu) will have already been forgotten. Like everywhere else, in the runup before, there have been carols sung and trees and lights and images of Santa hung up, especially in shops. All of this will have strangely disappeared by Christmas morning.

To a Westerner, Christmas may have deep associations. But in Japan it is mostly about Christmas cake (keiki), a gaudy sponge cake covered with whipped cream and decorated with strawberries that is eaten on Christmas Eve with friends or family or romantic partners. No one who eats it will be doing so already feeling stuffed from a heavy Christmas dinner. Nor are they likely to be yearning for the rich fruit cake to follow later on with tea, each dark brown slice fragrant with the scent of sherry or brandy, and coated thickly with marzipan and icing.

Nor will any child remember being called into the kitchen months before, and given a wooden spoon to stir a fruity mixture in a metal basin, and told to make a wish. This was the heavy pudding that appeared, with blue flames of burning brandy round a piece of holly, to crown the Christmas repast. Was it this, or the mince pies, in which there might be a coin in silver paper? Whatever it was, presents aside, Christmas was mostly about eating — apart from the Church.

And here we find the great divide, for the keiki that many will consume on Christmas Eve is a thin confection compared to the rich offerings of Western custom. Yet in all those images of the birth of Christ in cribs, nobody is ever eating, though admittedly there are presents (gold, frankincense and myrrh).

The truth is that no one knows when Christ was born, and almost all the festivities are of pagan origin. As a compromise, the early Church seems to have taken over a winter festival, and used it for a celebration of the birth of Christ. Yet underneath all that there is another hidden meaning, deeply connected with the season that one might, in the land of haiku, expect to be significant as well.

To check this, I looked into my enormous seasonal almanac, “Saijiki,” where all the seasonal words (kigo) and seasonal topics (kidai) employed in haiku composition are explained. A number of sample verses are given for kurisumasu , but none of them are famous haiku (meiku). Indeed, almost uniquely for this compilation, several terms that refer to Christmas are hopefully explained, without any sample verses being given.

Unsurprisingly, in English haiku anthologies Christmas features significantly. Yet the original meaning of the Western celebration lies in its proximity to the winter solstice, a time of profound significance since very ancient times. In Britain and Ireland, for example, there are several prehistoric sites whose whole design is centered on the winter solstice. We presume this was because, after the sun had reached its lowest point, the days began to lengthen once again: it was the rebirth of light and hope.

The feasting, the reunion with family, and the sense of renewal that Westerners experience at Christmas, occurs in Japan at New Year. The spirit of this time of year is captured by Mayuzumi Madoka in this haiku:

The prows of the ships
all point toward Mount Fuji:
first view of the year

But this new beginning was formerly a moveable feast, set according to the lunar calendar, like Easter. So it is ambiguous today in Japan, where some festivals, like the summer Obon celebrations, have different dates in different parts of the country.

What is unambiguous, however, is the complete lack of interest in the winter solstice (toji) in a calendar of annual seasonal events. The “Saijiki” gives only a minor notice to either solstice, major events in other seasonal perceptions, while both the spring (shunbun) and autumn (shubun) equinoxes are marked by public holidays. It has been suggested to me that this has something to do with Buddhism (the Middle Way), rather than simply the weather: the summer solstice (geshi) occurs, for instance, in the rainy season.

I am told, by a friend teaching in an international school in Europe, that the Christmas break must now be referred to as “winter holiday,” so as not to offend those of other faiths. It is curious how the politically correct or neutral term actually reflects the origin of the celebration in a truthful way. Happy winter holiday!

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