Some years back, a Japanese department store — keen to adopt the Western tradition of Christmas — mounted an extravagant display in its window: a smiling Santa nailed to a crucifix. I think somebody got a bit confused…
The store’s booboo made Christians rather cross. Cross—get it? Sorry, bad joke.
The cultural faux pas is said to have happened shortly after World War II. The Japanese already had a thriving retail industry and penchant for seasonal and etiquette-driven gift-giving. They also had a fascination with the West and the early 20th century saw them gradually adopt—and adapt—a number of traditional Western holiday celebrations.
The main one to take hold in Japan is the one that carries the most influence in the West as well: Christmas. In the early 20th century, exchanging gifts at Christmastime in Japan slowly started becoming more common. In the 1930s, Christmas sales started in Japanese stores. But it was when World War II ended and the Americans occupied Japan that Christmas really took off.
Around this time, one department store in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district got its symbols mixed up. The Japanese were far more interested in adapting all the secular aspects of the holiday, which were starting to overtake the religious connotations for many people. They had Christmas trees, twinkling lights in all over shopping centres and people’s houses, and Christmas music in every pedestrian walkway.
But the religious aspects of Christmas just didn’t catch on. There was no carol singing, no Nativity plays. So when the staff of the Ginza department store were instructed to decorate their window in a ‘Christian’ Christmas style, the workers hadn’t a clue what to do. Their conclusion was: “Hey, Christians love their crucifixes, don’t they? And since the holiday’s all about that fat man in red from the North Pole, let’s nail him to one.”