In that respect, I find Christmas in Japan rather refreshing. Unhampered by any sort of judeo-christian background, the Japanese have distilled Christmas down to its most basic commercial elements and embraced it with gusto. This is, afterall, a country with a profound understanding of the two most crucial aspects of the mercantile side of Christmas: easily marketable 'tradition', and cutesy kitsch. The kitsch is visible in every shop window and department store ad; you wouldn't believe the lengths vendors go to in a country full of non-practicing Shintoists to associate their products with Santa and european Christmas markets. Understanding of the roots or reasons for these things is not required, only an appreciation for the novel and 'refined'. Christmas trees are fun and pretty... why make it any deeper than that? (Indeed, my first Christmas in Japan I once encountered a group of Japanese singing english language gospel hymns in the town's shopping arcade in order to promote a Christmas sale -- as they implored Jesus to come and walk with them, presumably through the department store aisles, I tried to imagine myself chanting sutras outside of Dillard's for their big 'Buddha's Birthday Event'...)
Despite the sales hype, however, there is no Christmas gift exchange in Japan (with one crucial exception -- see below). Yet, being stubbornly American, I made cookies and cakes to give out at the office. This was fine as long as it only involved members of my own section, but I found it caused some consternation if proffered to people outside of NIV. When I handed a bag of homemade orange-cranberry biscotti to the CG's secretary, she held it out at arms length by the tips of her fingers and asked me dubiously, "Why?" "Uh, for Christmas..?" did not seem to be a fully satisfactory reply. Probably now she thinks she owes me something. Which I suppose could only work in my favor...
At any rate, here are some basic 'traditions' you are obliged to undertake in order to consider your japanese Christmas a success:
1. If you are single, you must have a date for Christmas Eve. This date must be able to provide two things:
a. The 'Christmas Kiss', much like our New Year's kiss.
b. The 'Christmas Gift' -- similar to american Valentine's Day, receiving a gift from your sweetheart on Christmas is an act laden with all sorts of deep, anxiety-ridden meaning in Japan.
2. If you have a family, you must purchase:
a. a bucket of fried chicken from KFC (it's a long story)
b. a 'Christmas Cake', decorated with whipped cream and strawberries
3. If you are a member of an office staff, you must throw a raucous party with drinking and subsequent drunken carousing. This is not substantially different from any other office party, except that you have propped a Christmas tree up in the corner, and the most inebriated of you -- inevitably that mousy secretary you never would have suspected -- is wearing a Santa hat.
For its part, the NIV section in the consulate is replete with wreaths and bells and those little Christmas tree shaped gel things you stick on windows. These are mainly being propagated by the one FSN who also keeps stuffed animals on her desk, and minces around the office in an affected cutesy shuffle. I have not asked, but somehow I don't think her commitment to the holiday goes much beyond its 「かわいい~！」パチパチパチパチ factor. Perhaps at one point she aspired to a deeper, 'peace on earth and goodwill to all' celebration of Christmas, but was likely visited by the Ghost of Strictly Secular Christmas-san who promptly threw out her Salvation Army kettle and replaced it with an antler wearing Snoopy doll.
I'm sure when I arrive in America this weekend, I'll be able to watch some glossy, over-marketed Christmas TV special which will cure me of this jaded outlook...
*Naturally this is a purely hypothetical situation. I would NEVER do such a thing. Even if it were the middle of the night. And it were raining. And the nearest open store were blocks away.