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.”
And there weren’t many Christians in Japan to correct their spectacular error. Less than 2% of the population are Christian, and that’s today. So the store unveiled its crucified Santa to the blissfully ignorant masses and that was that. Until, of course, the Bible brigade got wind of it and came running with whorls of steam curling out of their ears.
Here’s the catch. This hilariously bizarre and often told story probably isn’t true. No one’s produced a photograph, a contemporaneous news account recording its date and location, or any other evidence to prove that an effigy of Santa smiling sweetly down from Jesus’s final instrument of torture was ever used commercially by a department store. Nobody can say what store it was or where — some say it was a store in Ginza, others say it was in Kyoto. Nobody knows when either. It either happened in 1945 or 1962 or 1990, or anytime between “just after World War II” and “a couple of years ago”.
It’s an urban legend that perfectly expresses the clash between the religious and the secular, the holy and the profane, the East and the West. Now Santas on crosses periodically pop up throughout the world. Often they’re displayed to highlight the commercialisation of the holiday.
One of the most famous was in a painting by Robert Cenedella, displayed in public in December 1997 in the front window of The Art Students League of New York. The city’s Catholic League had a screaming tantrum, but the school refused to take down the painting and kept it on display for the whole of the Christmas season. Good for them.
Merry Christmas! 😀
If you love Christmas but care more about Christmas trees, Santa, stockings, elves, crackers, fairy lights, and exchanging gifts with your loved ones round an open fire than all that Jesus nonsense, The East Pudding Chronicles could be right up your street. This is a series of illustrated books for children about the ‘alternative’ origins of Christmas traditions, written in the spirit of Roald Dahl and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. You can find them by going to my Books page.
Next year: I’ll be back with more mysteries, conspiracies and urban legends, and hopefully some news about Million Eyes, as my quest to find a literary agent continues.