A Buddhist Holiday Season


For most Americans or residents in the West, December is synonymous with certain holidays like Christmas or Hanukkah. I can fondly remember Christmas morning at my grandmother’s house, opening presents, seeing beloved relatives and having a large feast before trundling home sleepy and well fed. Everything seemed more festive, brighter and larger as a child. These were happy times indeed.
But times are somewhat different for me now. My Japanese wife and I are raising our little girl Buddhist, which presents some challenges in a country where Buddhism is little understood and hardly visible.
Holidays in Buddhism are few and far between. Everyday is a day to walk the Buddha Path, a day to practice wholesome conduct, and practice goodwill toward others. Everyday is a day to reflect upon one’s own actions, for better or worse. Thus, holidays are not particularly prominent in Buddhism, aside from very local, cultural ones. In Japanese Buddhism, the Enlightenment of the Buddha is celebrated as Bodhi Day or Jodo-e, on December 8th of every year in accordance with the belief that the Buddha awakened on the 8th Day of the 12th month. Many other cultures still observe the lunar calendar instead, so for them the day may vary each year. But in Japan, the Western calendar is used exclusively, so the date of December 8th is fixed and easier for people like me to remember.
Celebrations on Bodhi Day vary. Zen Buddhists refer to this day as Rohatsu, but this implies a day of special, more intensive meditation practice in honor of the Buddha. For lay Buddhists and families, temples will hold special services to honor the Buddha’s accomplishment and thus his gift to the world of clarity and wisdom, followed by a luncheon or dinner afterwards. But these celebrations are the main extent of Bodhi Day, and for me, Bodhi Day is not unlike Martin Luther King Day in the U.S., where dedicated people honor the memory, but there exist few traditions beyond that.
So, while Buddhists do have Bodhi Day to look to, we don’t want to leave our children out of the festive season either. Japanese religion is highly syncretic in nature, and over the centuries various deities, traditions and practices have been absorbed by Buddhism and undergone a kind of transformation that I like to call “Buddhification.” This may seem strange to Westerners used to more clearly defined walls about what is and isn’t part of a religion, but one must also bear in mind how many Pagan traditions are now part of the Christmas “canon.” Buddhism is more tolerant of this practice I believe, so long as the message of goodwill, wisdom and appreciation of the impermanence of life are still core values.
Thus, with the Japanese approach to religion in mind, I look at my Christmas memories and my desire to give my daughter a happy upbringing, and I believe it more than suitable to celebrate Christmas with her as well. The story of Santa Claus bringing gifts to the children of the world is a very pleasant one, and I like to joke that Santa Claus may secretly be a Bodhisattva as well: a Buddhist figure who strives to awaken and benefit all beings before reaching full Buddhahood himself.
Make no mistake though. In its purest form, Christmas is a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and is thus sacred to Christians, not Buddhists, and out of respect for Christians it is important to bear this in mind, but I still hope to share presents and good cheer with my family on December 25 out of love and memory for the joys I had as a child. If I can bring some magic to my little one’s eyes that day, I will have done my job. But at the same time, I hope to also give her something to remember on December 8 for Bodhi Day as well. As she is nearly four, she is beginning to become aware of the Buddha, and what it means to be Buddhist and I want to somehow give her happy memories of that as well. But I’ve struggled to figure out a way that’s easy for children to understand, without being too artificial.
One idea I’ve been tossing around, is to make a kind of “Bodhi Tree” the night before with my daughter: take a fake, desk-sized Christmas tree I have at home, decorate it, place a statue of the Buddha underneath, and maybe leave some cookies too. This helps to recreate the story of the day before the Buddha’s awakening, according to tradition, when he gave up ascetic practices, ate a meal offered by a helpful village girl, and then sat underneath a tree to meditate all night until fruition. Maybe follow up the next morning with a nice breakfast and even a gift or two (books, not toys).
Whether this is a tradition I can sustain with her through the years remains to be seen, but at the very least, finding a creative, not forced, expression of the Buddhist faith will leave a positive impact on our children, and hopefully our children’s children.


  1. I do think Santa is a Bodhisattva!

    When my daughter was three or so, she began somewhat precociously to question the existence of Santa. I told her that Santa is very real, but he’s not so much a person, as an idea. The idea of Santa is wanting to make someone else happy, just so that person can be happy, for no other reason. Santa doesn’t want thanks or credit or something in return, he just wants children to be filled with joy.

    I also told her that since she was old enough to ask the magic question about the existence of Santa, she was also old enough to BE Santa.

    That Christmas, and all the Christmases since, she experienced the true holiday joy that comes from anonymously filling everyone elses stockings!

  2. Hi Saill,

    Hm, I never thought of it that way, but that’s a novel idea. I admit my three year old may not grasp the concept of an idea much, but I figure when she’s older there’s no reason not to work the Buddhist notion of giving in with Santa and the holiday season. 🙂

    Also, it should be noted that the tradition exists in China as well, with the famous “Fat Buddha” named Budai (a.k.a. Hotei). The statues you see in restaurants and such are really of a legendary, quasi-Buddhist figure who was said to also be jolly, chubby, and give gifts to kids.

    I guess Santa is our version of Hotei/Budai. 😉

  3. That’s funny, I love “fat buddha”. I had a Budai incense burner as a child. I bought it with my allowance at Japanese Deer Park in L.A.

    It makes sense to me that Budai was picked up by Westerners. Maybe he is more appealing to our Western desire for indulgence than the more ascetic versions of Buddha are.

    Valuing caring and generosity as a gift and a virtue is an idea that seems to span many or maybe most religious persuasions. To me that idea feels like the true holiday spirit.

    I wish I knew what happened to my childhood Budai incense burner. I think I will look for another one.


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