Old Wives' Tales
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Legend: A Japanese department store once created a Christmas display featuring a smiling Santa Claus nailed to a cross.
The Mary Chocolate Co. is credited with bringing Valentine's Day to Japan in 1958, with the twist that it should be a day for girls to give gifts to guys. Naturally, this led to the retail industry's creation of "White Day" in March, an occasion for the boys to reciprocate all those chocolates they'd been given a month earlier by buying white presents (such as handkerchiefs or panties) for their gals. Likewise, the Seibu department store recast
However, the Western holiday that carries the most influence in Japan is, not surprisingly, the holiday that carries the most influence in the West as well: Christmas. Although
As you'd expect in a country where less than 1% of the population is Christian (the rest is primarily Shinto or Buddhist), Christmas is a purely secular occasion, with shops and businesses remaining open for the day. The Japanese have adopted many of the traditional trappings of 'Kurisumasu': stores with elaborate displays of Christmas decorations and
The exchanging of kurisumasu cakes is not exactly a Western tradition, but it doesn't sound too unusual to us. What we do find unusual is a custom of young couples exchanging presents of expensive jewelry, heading out to high-priced hotels, and being directed by scantily-clad female elves to rooms complete with Christmas trees, where the lovebirds spend their Christmas Eve in romantic bliss. The
The most infamous of these blendings is the notorious story of the Japanese Christmas display that featured a smiling Santa Claus nailed to a cross. It's a perfect expression of the clash between the holy and the profane, the secular and the religious, the East and the West. It speaks to our xenophobic fears — these foreigners can't be trusted with our religion and our traditions. And it's a darn funny story.
The literal truthfulness of this legend is suspect because all the details vary about where, when and how it took place. There is general agreement that the site was Tokyo's Ginza shopping district, but other large cities (such as Kyoto) and several different department stores are named as the one that hosted the unusual display. Santa was first nailed to a cross in Japan in 1945 or 1962 or 1990 or anywhere in between. And the display was a small, life-sized, or gigantic Santa mannequin; a billboard, or a cartoon drawing.
As well, the mixing of Christian iconography and Santa Claus is an unlikely pairing. Nativity scenes, not crucifixes, are the religious displays featured at Christmastime. One might see a crucifix in church, but presumably anyone attending a Christian church knows at least enough about Christianity to understand that Jesus is the figure on the cross, and/or that Santa Claus is not a religious figure. One would also have to pause to wonder why a smiling, happy, jolly figure would be pictured hanging from boards with nails driven through his hands and feet. Santa Claus in a creche might be a plausible mistake (and indeed, there are claims that the Seven Dwarfs have been spotted standing in for the Three Wise Men), but a crucified Santa challenges credulity. As parody it's believable; as an honest mistake we find it unlikely.
Perhaps the key to this legend is the timing. Despite claims of crucified Santas that span the last fifty years, the initial reports of this legend all stem from the early 1990s. Not coincidentally, up until that time Japan had been riding the economic high of their "bubble economy," and Americans watched in dismay as the Japanese business model was widely touted as superior to the American, dire predictions were made about the dominance of the American (and world economy) by Japan, and asset-rich Japanese began snapping up foreign (especially American) real estate such as New York's Rockefeller Center. Should we be surprised that a xenophobic legend involving a clash between Japan and one of the most hallowed aspects of Western culture might arise from such circumstances?
Alternatively, we can ignore all the foreign trappings and simply interpret this legend as a commentary on the commercialization of Christmas, a holiday in which Jesus Christ has now been replaced (symbolically and literally) by Santa Claus. This was the point artist Robert Cenedella was trying to make when he drew the ire of religious groups over his painting of a crucified Santa Claus (shown above), which was displayed in the window of New York's Art Students League in December 1997.
Last updated: 30 July 2007
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