In the UK—“Really Christmas is just a pagan festival,” said the cynical co-worker who sat across from me at a workplace Christian Fellowship meeting in 2010. We all rolled our eyes a little, but his point certainly has merit. Christmas in the UK has become a festival of shopping and presents which may be fun and worthwhile, but it’s often a struggle even for Christians to really ponder the birth of Christ in the middle of everything else.

In northern Japan—“To 99% of people here, this festival is just a good chance to celebrate. Nobody thinks about the spiritual meaning,” said my American friend who marched in the Japanese [Shinto] festival (Hanamaki Festival, 2017).

As a missionary working in the small rural town of Hanamaki the annual festival is not only one of the few times we see our town busy but it also gives us a lot to think about. The festival got into the Guinness book of records for the most omikoshi (portable spirit houses) to be paraded at a single event. The event clearly has its purpose in honouring the many local gods.

When we compare the two cultures—UK at Christmas and Hanamaki at festival time what a strange comparison we see. We find Christmas without Christ and a Shinto veneration of the gods with (apparently) very little belief in them. What can we make of the unlikely parallels here?

Making the most of every opportunity

It’s easy to bemoan the dominance of Santa or the darkness of Hanamaki festival and end up feeling depressed. But what would Jesus or the Apostle Paul do in these situations? Jesus used all kinds of situations to reveal his Father to people. Paul stood on Mars Hill in Athens and basically said, “You don’t know what you’re worshipping—let me show you the real, knowable God” (Acts 17).

Can we do that in the confused Christmas of the UK or the increasingly secular Hanamaki Festival?

For us in Japan this can start with talking about how festivals in Western countries are celebrated by Christians compared to how Japanese celebrate the Shinto Hanamaki Festival. Last Christmas, our neighbour came to hear the gospel at our church because she wanted to hear our children singing English songs.

This works in the UK too, as our Christian culture becomes increasingly different to the secular culture around us.

Who knows? What starts off as a conversation about Christmas cards or festival drums could lead to someone knowing and serving the real, glorious God . . . beyond all the confusion of these festivals.

By Mark

Will you pray?

  • Pray for opportunities for missionaries and Japanese Christians to use festivals as a way to introduce the gospel.
  • Pray for Western Christians in their own countries to also find opportunities at Christmas time to talk about the gospel.
  • Pray for wisdom for Japanese Christians negotiate the line between belief and culture when it comes to local celebrations.

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