How does a Catholic believer feel about Japanese Christmas, and what’s it like for a non-believer to go to Christmas Mass?

Ahh, Christmas. One of Japan’s favorite times of the year. When shopping malls and parks are decorated with lights and Christmas trees, and when elaborate light shows and illumination events dot the countryside. When you can enjoy delicious Christmas-y flavors at all kinds of venues, and indulge in a luxurious fried chicken dinner with a dessert of Christmas cake. When romance fills the air, even more than Valentine’s Day (and when single people hate being alone so much that they rent a date for a night).

Yes, Japan has its fair share of unique Christmas culture, at least from the perspective of us foreigners. In fact, one of our Japanese-language reporters wondered just what we foreigners, specifically those of us that follow a Christian religion, think about Japanese Christmas, and decided to ask a foreigner.

Agnes is part of a family of devout Catholics that goes back generations. Her grandfather lives in a church and reads the Bible in Latin, and her father made serious endeavors to become a priest in his youth. Agnes herself has fallen off the wagon a bit, having not been to church in a while, and she was also born and raised in Japan, so her experience as a “Catholic foreigner” may be slightly different from others, as she stands on both sides of the fence. Nevertheless, she earnestly answered our Japanese-language reporter’s questions about Japanese Christmas and Catholic Mass.

Q: How do you feel about Japanese Christmas?

A: “I don’t really feel one way or another. I can’t speak for those devout believers who live overseas, but I was born and raised in Japan. I don’t mind if they have sales, or eat chicken, or have romantic couple events.

Even among serious Christians here, there’s the idea that ‘The Church’s Christmas is the Church’s’, and, ‘Another country’s festivities are another country’s festivities.’ They’re different entities altogether.'”

Q: I see. I heard that the Catholic Church does a special mass for Christmas. Can non-believers attend as well?

A: “Ahh, it’s perfectly fine. I have done a lot of moving around in life so I’ve been to a few different churches. They’ve always been welcoming. You might even see a sign on a notice board saying, “Come to Christmas Mass!” I’d say anyone would be welcome, even to a regular mass.”

Q: It’s that casual? I’m surprised. By the way, what do you do at Christmas Mass?

A: “We pray, we listen to the priest’s sermon, and we sing hymns. It’s easy to participate in the music because they give out little booklets with the lyrics and notation for all of the hymns. 

If you just try to follow what everyone else is doing you should be fine. However, we do something called Communion, where you receive a bit of wafer, like a rice cracker, from the priest, and that can only be done by those who have been baptized. 

But unbaptized visitors can be blessed by the priest, so you can line up with everyone else. Simply bow your head before the priest and put your hands together and you can receive a blessing. The priests will say something to you, but it’s been a long time for me so I don’t remember exactly what.

[Also, Christmas Mass is at night while]…usually Mass is in the morning, so parishioners don’t usually have the chance to go at night. With the dim lighting, and the stained glass glistening in the low light, even I am impressed when I go in for Christmas Mass.”

Q: I see. Umm…There’s something that I am kind of worried about…don’t they try to convert you when you go, even a little?

A: “No way! (laughs) At least, not that I have ever seen. I think the grand scale of the Catholic Church gives it the freedom to not do that. 

Of course, I’m sure they want you to use this as an opportunity to get to know a little bit about the church. But I doubt that they will outright try to convert you on the spot. I think that might happen more with newer religions.

You might have one or two people approach you individually, but that’s not just limited to the Catholic Church. That would happen to you anywhere. (laughs) Nothing to do about it.”

Q: Well, now that I know that, I have to admit I’m kind of interested now. If I wanted to go, what should I wear? Is there a dress code?

A: “A dress code! (laughs) I’ve never heard of such a thing. You don’t have to get dressed up. I think it’d be fine to go in regular clothes. But of course ‘regular’ is different for different people.

Hmm…no shoulder showing, no cleavage, no short shorts or skirts, and don’t wear any Santa costumes unless you want everyone to stare at you. You probably won’t have someone come up to you after mass if you do, but it’s part of the church establishment, so just use common sense and wear something that would be appropriate for work or school and you’ll be fine.”

But there’s something more improper than than clothing that concerns the priests.”

Q: What’s that?

“I heard from someone else that recently there were people taking constant photos during Mass. Even if taken without the shutter noise, it seems to bother the priests. They might be posting on Instagram with the caption, “I’m in a solemn church!” when their behavior is in direct contrast to the solemnity. (laughs)

It’s not like it’s forbidden to take photographs or anything, but there are devout followers attending mass so it’s important to have some consideration for them. It might be good manners to ask permission to take and upload photos after mass. I don’t think they will say no and it makes everyone feel more comfortable.

I should say that’s not just for churches! That applies to most other places too. 

Like I said, everyone is welcome to church! So why don’t you come by and see what it’s like? As long as you behave with common sense there should be no problem. No need to be nervous!”

Well, it seems that, at least from Agnes’ perspective, Catholics don’t really mind what the Japanese do with their Christmas, so they have no need to worry if they are offending anyone. Plus, they’re welcome to try out a Catholic Christmas too! That’s great news for those open and interested Japanese citizens who are curious about what Catholicism is all about.

By the way, in case you were wondering, as of right now our holiday plans are to dress up our cats in Christmas-themed clothing items, after we get them into the yuletide spirit by plying them with some gourmet kitty snacks.

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