President Donald Trump has made it a motif of his administration to acknowledge his and the First Lady’s Christian faith in public. One of the most striking ways they do this is by wishing the nation, not a happy holiday season or a safe month of interfaith festivities, but an honest to goodness “Merry Christmas.” Americans have responded warmly to these frank—and, until fairly recently, culturally bedrock—confessions of religious belief.
In my lifetime, I have watched Christmas turn slowly, like a browning pear, from a season of joy to perennial intifada in the culture wars. One stray “Merry Christmas” at work can get you fired. So much as breathing a word about the birth of the Savior is enough to launch investigations of hate crimes. The mere mention of Christianity is tantamount to a racial slur. A video by the Catholic newspaper The Remnant, however, featuring President Trump’s 2019 Christmas greeting, quickly racked up over a million views, a testament to how much people crave hearing their leaders speak openly about Jesus Christ.
Americans have long known that Christmas isn’t primarily a time for cheer and hope. The season is too materialistic, the usual explanation goes. We focus more on buying televisions than on gazing at the babe in the creche, and the promise that He brings to the human race.
That is true, but perhaps not the whole story. Readers may be surprised to learn that “Merry Christmas,” while apparently just shy of hate speech in America, is a greeting freely exchanged in Japan. Every Christmas season here I am surprised anew at how often I hear people wishing me, and one another, “Merry Christmas.” The phrase flows as easily and innocently in Tokyo as “Good morning” does in the United States.
Isn’t this strange? Japan is, statistically speaking, one of the least Christian countries on Earth. The commonly cited figure is one percent of the population. Some scholars, however, believe the figure may be as high as ten percent. But this would include “cultural Christians,” people who don’t belong to a sect or even identify as Christian, but whose ancestors hid their faith to avoid government persecution and death. Still, however one calculates it, this is a part of the world where Christianity arrived very late, and where Christians have fought uphill ever since.
When Japanese people say “Merry Christmas,” there is a very good chance that the connotation is the generic holiday season, replete here, as elsewhere, with green and red decorations, cinnamon cookies and pumpkin lattes, presents wrapped and beribboned and excitedly exchanged, feasts and excursions to light shows at night, and all the other trappings of the end of the year that one finds in many other parts of the world. “Merry Christmas” in Japan probably does not mean, “May you know the peace and joy of Christ in your heart.”
But even though Japan is one of the least Christian places one can visit, it is also, in another sense, one of the most Christian places I have ever been. There is real charity here—a culture of looking out for one’s neighbors and making little sacrifices for one’s friends. People in Japan tend to be extraordinarily tolerant, willing to put cultural differences aside so that the other person can live his own life comfortably and to the fullest. Many here know that I am a Christian, and happily wish me “Merry Christmas” as an impromptu celebration of my Faith. The fact that they may not share it—or even understand much about it—isn’t a reason to try to get me to stop believing. This may be a method for avoiding social chaos learned over long centuries of martial law under the samurai: Better not rock the boat lest men with very sharp swords come around to restore order. Smile, wish the other well, and move on.
Perhaps. But how I wish we could have more of this in the United States. How nice it would be if I could wish someone “Merry Christmas” and have him wish me the same, or even “Happy Hanukkah.” Wishing someone “Merry Christmas” is a little verbal burst of blessing, a wish for another soul that all the happiness in Heaven be his forever. In a society trammeled by liberalism, in which we are all seen as little sovereigns who must defend our territories against the others in our view, it is easy to interpret difference as affront, and religion as assault.
Not so in Japan. Things are not perfect here, but in this respect they are much better. It is easier to love my brother and sister in a country much less fraught with liberalism’s built-in suspicion—and the temptation to feign having been slighted so that the full force of Leviathan might be called down upon a hapless neighbor.
When President Trump wishes the nation “Merry Christmas,” it is wonderful to hear, but it can also feel subversive, a defiant gesture in a climate of cold contempt for those who don’t agree. In Japan, “Merry Christmas” is said in love, not in fear, and it warms the heart to hear it.