Welcome to Tokyo’s most popular shopping destination, Ginza. The colorful banners read “Precious Christmas” and “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Busy department stores and boutiques are crowded with locals, expats and tourists looking for last-minute gifts. I was there last night to try to get into the Christmas spirit.

Japan is in no way a Christian country. This is a mostly secular land whose inhabitants prefer Christian, Buddhist or Shinto ceremonies depending on the event. A skinny Jew with a long beard or an enlightened fat man in repose, it’s all good. Think of it as a mix’n’match of beliefs and traditions centered around nothing more than a collective desire to make it so.

So I wasn’t surprised last Christmas when someone told me a story about a friend entering a middle school and seeing Santa Clause nailed to a cross in the lobby. You might think this is surprising and even sacrilegious but then you might not live in Japan. After living in Tokyo for over three years, nothing I hear or read about Japan or the Japanese people surprises me anymore.

I later heard that the crucified Santa was just an urban legend. Then I read that there was documented proof that it had happened in more than one place on several different occasions.

Who or what to believe? Maybe that’s why the locals like to pick and choose when it comes to religion.

As I exited one of the department stores to head home, I saw a Buddhist priest with his eyes closed tightly in meditation. He was striking a small bowl hovering from a sting he held in his left hand as he walked slowly towards a Japanese man singing the Japanese version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” I sang the English version in my head, “To hear the angels sing.”

It’s not Christmas in New York. But what is? Tokyo is home for now and that’s not so bad really. Besides, I’ll be back in New York to celebrate New Year with friends.

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