Can you imagine December without Christmas? No lighted tree? No gifts hidden away in closets? You can't imagine such a thing, you who have lived all your lives in a Christian country. But in Japan, schools, banks, and offices are open as usual. Christmas is nothing more than December 25!
Of course, there are plenty of Santa Clauses prominently displayed in the big department stores. Tinsel and lights abound in dance halls, cafes, and pinball parlors, where gay young moderns celebrate Christmas in a manner far from religious.
But among the Japanese Christians, what does Christmas mean? First, it is not a family day, as it is with us, for in Japan there are few families in which every member is a Christian. Next, there is no turkey or plum pudding. Rather, Christmas in Japan is the day in which all Christians try to do something for others, especially for the sick in the hospitals.
Although most of the hospitals in Japan are unattractive and unheated, without suitable rooms for holding meetings, Christian young people decorate whatever space is allowed with a small tree and a "back" (a piece of black cloth upon which are fastened stars, shepherds, and Wise Men cut from cardboard).
The very best students from the Sunday school are chosen to sing Christmas carols for the patients, to recite Bible passages, and put on a short drama or Bible pantomime. And then, of course, there is always a treat of cakes or candies for the Bible class patients; and Christmas tracts for everyone in the hospital-from the superintendent and head surgeon down to the lowliest scrub woman.
Christmas is the happiest day of the year for Sunday school children all over Japan. On Christmas Eve or Christmas night, they give an elaborate program, hours long, on which they have worked for weeks. When they sing, they make the rafters ring! When they recite, everyone can hear them. Eyes shining and cheeks rosy with excitement, they can hardly wait for their turn to perform.
And the dramas! They are so realistic that you can easily imagine yourself back on the plains of Bethlehem two thousand years ago. What if the shepherd's garment is an old blanket, and the angels are wearing white dress shirts from the missionary barrel?
Best of all, at the end of the program come Sunday school pins for perfect attendance, and simple gifts for the ones who have not missed too many Sundays. There is never enough money for gifts for everyone, but usually each child takes home an orange or a small box of caramels.
Christmas for a missionary in Japan is a wonderful time, lasting generally for a month or more. Here in Gifu we start preparing in November with groups at our home weekly, cutting the pictures from old Christmas cards and pasting them carefully on the front of our printed Christmas tract.
One week the neighborhood women meet here, scissors and tongues equally busy. How they exclaim over the beautiful cards from America! Although most of these women are not yet Christians themselves, they work on this project as if their lives depended on it. For all of the Bible classes we had candlelight services. Try to picture forty-five earnest young university students holding lighted candles and singing "Joy to the World." Remember that most of these are boys and girls who have never before heard of Bethlehem-or the star-or the Wise Men. Remember that these are the leaders of the Japan-to-be. Remember that unless they realize what Christmas really means, they will never know true joy! Christmas for Christians in Japan means Christ coming again into their hearts with new power. It means Christ coming for the first time into hearts that have never known him before. Thus it is truly a Meri Kurisumasu!