For most people in the West (Europe and North America), Christmas is the time of the year all family members gather together. There are those who go to church, but in most western countries, the focus of the day is firmly on the family, and family only (not family and friends). It is a private, quiet, staying-at-home day. It involves different generations, where memories are revived and created. Gifts, some good and others ill-chosen, are exchanged. There’s usually a lot of food and drink, and sometimes arguments.
New Year’s Eve is more public. People gather outside of their homes, whether to sing Auld Lang Syne and snog strangers, or to see the Times Square ball descend. It tends to be the day where one spends with friends of similar age. It could be a inter-generational family affair, but that seems to be less common. For many people, it is not as important as Christmas, but a good day and excuse to gather and party.
In Japan, Christmas is almost completely stripped of its religious meaning but commercialized to the hilt. It is the day when children receive gifts from Santa. Giving of gift happens, but it’s not usually reciprocal, since parents (as Father Christmas) give presents to their children. Some couples exchange gifts, but many do not. If you ask what happened on Christmas Day, most non-Christian Japanese poeple would answer that it was the day Christ was born. But knowledge on Christmas is unlikely to extend towards any understanding of Christianity, who or what Jesus was.
Christmas is when the young tend to celebrate among themselves, in many cases as couples, especially on Christmas Eve. In a strange way, Christmas Eve is very similar to St Valentine’s Day. The Christmas Day itself is a normal working day (unless it falls on a weekend), so it does not have the legal recognition that it enjoys in predominently Christian societies and countries.
However, things change with regard to the New Year. If there’s a single most important date in Japanese psyche, then New Year is it. I have come to believe that one major component of Japanese psychology is impermanence of this world, and impermanence of individual human existence on this planet. This notion of impermanence naturally has strong Buddhist links, but it cannot solely be explained by Buddhism. It would be too long and complicated to explain how this is so, but the relevance here is that the New Year marks a new beginning, far more than it’s the case in western societies.
Many Japanese people will travel long distances to their families. Like Christmas in the West, it can become a headache for many, who have to decide which side of the family to visit. It can be a tense moment for many people, because the gathering can involve a large number of relatives.
Welcoming the New Year means leaving the old. And one cannot leave a mess behind. So there’s a huge clean-up operation in almost every houeshold in Japan before the New Year’s Eve. For that reason, New Year’s Eve is often chaotic, since other than cleaning, food and drinks need to be purchased and prepared. In some regions of Japan, the feast starts on New Year’s Eve, but in most places, it’s the first three days of the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, people eat simple buckwheat noodles (soba).
Once the hectic day nears its end, many families gather together, and watch television. By far the most popular programme is on the NHK (a public broadcasting service, like the BBC), which hosts an annual end-of-the-year song contest. Contestants are divided into two teams of women (red) and men (white). The programme is designed to attract as many generations as possible, so there are J-Pop songs for the young, and enka for the old. It ends shortly before midnight with Auld Lang Syne.
Auld Lang Syne is probably one of the most recognized tunes in Japan, but the lyrics are completely different. People usually sing, and can remember, the first verse only. The first line refers to a Chinese tale of two young people who studied hard into night, one using fireflies as a source of light, and the other relying on moon light reflected by snow. The rest of the verse can be summarized as: years of study passed by and the day of departure (i.e. new beginning) arrives. Third and fourth verses are now inappropriate because of their patriotic / nationalistic tones.
Some people go to bed after listening to the 108 strikes of bell, which is also televised. Others will go to a Shinto or Buddhist temple for the first prayers of the year very early in the morning. Japanese religiosity is not tied to one religion, so it’s quite normal for a Japanese person to visit a Shinto temple and follow that with a visit to a nearby Buddhist temple. Indeed many people think it’s better to visit temples of different denominations, other than their own.
After the clock hits midnight, some exchange best wishes, while others wait until the morning. New Year’s Day involves lots of greetings, food and drink. Relatives and neighbours visit and wish each other a good year. Children often receive money from their parents and grandparents on the New Year’s Day, in addition to any presents they received for Christmas.
For those who travelled long to see the family, there will be a return to their homes, and to work, after the first couple days of the new year. So begins the new year, and there will be many first this and first that, from the opening of the stock market to the sales in the department stores. Then life just goes on, until that year comes to its end.