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Sunday, Dec. 22, 2002

Home sweet family Christmas

Staff writer

It's almost Christmas, and children all over the world are getting more excited with each passing day, dreaming and chattering about what presents will await them on Christmas morning.

News photo
Christmas cakes on display in a shop window

Five-year-old Yui Sasaki is no exception, and she's quite clear about what she hopes Santa Claus will bring her this year: a set of makeup for kids. "I like wearing makeup," says Yui, who is a big fan of teen pop group Morning Musume.

Chances are Yui will find the gift from Santa beside her pillow when she wakes up on Wednesday morning. Acting as Santa's go-betweens, Yui's mother, Haruko, 29, and her husband will quietly put the gift there the night before while she is asleep. "We want to respect Yui's belief that Santa Claus exists," says Haruko.

Though she is aware Christmas is a Christian holiday, Haruko says that it's something she doesn't think about. "It's an annual event, like Yui's birthday, when we especially try to make her happy -- and we all look forward to it every year," she says, adding that this year they've bought a new artificial Christmas tree -- bigger than the one they had before -- to make their home in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward feel more festive.

Like the Sasakis, many Japanese now celebrate Christmas along with the traditional yearend observances, though for all but the tiny minority of Christians in Japan it's not thought of as a holy night. Hence what matters for most is not the religious significance of Christmas -- but the Christmasy mood; a superficial gala presaging the New Year's holidays when schools and many businesses close.

It's a mood, too, that now sees Japan's cities sparkling with decorations and wafted in holiday music, while miniature artificial Christmas trees with twinkling lights and ornaments appear in many homes like the Sasakis', and some people also put up handmade Christmas decorations to brighten the atmosphere as well.

Though these decorations may be becoming more prominent here every year, back home in the nation's living rooms, it's still not Christmas cards most people are writing, but New Year's greeting cards to family, friends and business associates.

As a result, the Christmas cards from friends and relatives that are hung round the rooms of many homes and offices in other countries have yet to figure in Christmas in Japan.

News photo
A fashionable Tokyo boutique gets in the mood.

While many families gather for a feast on Christmas Eve, as neither Dec. 24 or 25 are holidays here, some families, including the Sasakis, may be digging into their Christmas meal this weekend. And whatever else they put on their tables, the special dinner just wouldn't be complete without Kurisumasu keki (Christmas cake) and chicken, which are, according to several surveys, the top two items on Japanese people's Christmas menu.

Unlike the heavy fruitcakes in some other countries, though, Japan's Christmas cakes are typically light sponge cakes covered with whipped cream and decorated with pieces of fruit and ornaments made of sugar. Although cakes like these are often sold in slices, many people favor buying a whole one for Christmas -- typically spending between 2,000 yen and 5,000 yen.

According to Hiroko Ueda, a spokesman for confectionery maker Fujiya Co., which claims to have introduced the Christmas cake tradition to Japan around 1910, its sales peak on Christmas Eve.

Conversely, Christmas is a bad time for Japan's chickens, as the Japan Chicken Association reports poultry sales hit an annual peak in December. But unlike Christmas cakes, it's not usually a whole chicken at the heart of the Christmas feast. Instead, these dinners are just as likely to feature roast chicken drumsticks, fried chicken portions or the like. In fact, Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan Ltd. spokeswoman Sumio Yokokawa said the firm's sales on Dec. 23, 24 and 25 are five to six times the normal daily average.

Feasting and ornamentation apart, however, the highlight of Christmas comes when children get their presents from Santa Claus.

For the lucky ones, that chubby chap with the white beard and red coat may visit them at their kindergarten as well. The principal of a public kindergarten in Tokyo said that while her school tries to maintain a neutral stance on any religion, they recognize that Santa Claus bringing children presents on Christmas is widely accepted as being devoid of religious significance.

At her kindergarten, they annually hold a yearend party during which the children dance to the song "Jingle Bells" and wait for Santa (played by the costumed principal from the adjacent elementary school) to appear (sans reindeer and sleigh) and give all the children a small gift -- usually provided by the parents.

Even for Maki Satoh, 5, who goes to a Christian kindergarten in Tokyo, and has been taught that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, whether Santa delivers the toy she's been yearning for seems much more important, says her 35-year-old father, Yoh. This year, he figured out his daughter wants a toy featuring the animation character Tottoko Hamutaro via a letter she wrote to Santa and placed in the stocking on their Christmas tree, he confessed.

In the Satoh household, in fact, the subject of Santa Claus often crops up with Maki at this time of year -- especially when she's being a bit naughty. "When we tell her that Santa Claus won't come if she isn't a good girl, she listens right away," Yoh says with a laugh.

According to a survey conducted last month by toy-maker Bandai Co., almost half of the 1,000 respondents (48.1 percent) said they were considering spending between 3,000 yen and 5,000 yen -- the second lowest spending bracket -- on a Christmas present for each of their children this year. This brought the overall per-child average down to 6,735 yen from 7,731 yen last year, a slide that is attributed to the recession.

Reporting on their children's wish-lists, these parents said the top items were computer-game software -- which had led the field for the past few years -- with stuffed toys and TV-character toys both also remaining very popular.

However, with more than enough game software already cluttering her house in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, 47-year-old Kaori Otsu says that this year her daughters Nanae, 12, and Mika, 10, are getting something "different but useful -- perhaps more gadgets for their badge-making set."

Though Nanae already knows who the Christmas presents are really from, Mika still believes in Santa Claus. To respect that, Otsu said that her husband will keep on writing "Santa Claus" in English on Mika's letter to Santa as per her request. "If we do it in Japanese, she might guess that it's my husband," Otsu says.

Unlike Mika Otsu, Tomohiro Sano, 33, says he can't recall believing in Santa Claus when he was little -- but he remembers it as an exciting event he always greatly looked forward.

Sano's 3-year-old son, Yusuke, who was born on Dec. 25, hasn't yet started to talk about Santa Claus. He says, however, that when his son does, he will happily start to put a Christmas present beside his pillow as he lies asleep on Christmas Eve.

"Because Christmas comes at the end of the year, at a time when businesses take a break, I think it's a great day to fully enjoy with my family," he says.

And so, the happy Christmas mood looks set to march on cheerfully through generations to come.

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