Blue Period has a Christmas episode that isn’t really a Christmas episode, but then, surprisingly, is precisely a Christmas episode.
In it, Christmas lasts about two minutes. Just long enough for the art prep school students to bask in the sparkly glory of some strawberry shortcake before the montage skips along to New Year’s Eve. Just long enough too, for supporting character Sae Okada to make a very poignant statement—one that got me thinking about how we engage with this holiday that stands for so much and yet also sometimes, so very little.
“I never thought Christmas was for us,” she says.
This could mean so many things: “I never thought we students who are madly preparing for our entrance exams to the nation’s most prestigious art programs would be allowed to take the time away from assignments to celebrate Christmas.” Or maybe “I never thought about Christmas, it’s not something we observe in my family.”
Or maybe, just maybe, Sae is asking, “Is this really a holiday that Japanese can celebrate?”
Who is Christmas for?
The interesting thing is that this particular episode of Blue Period is devoted to asking another vital question about permission and qualification: who is allowed to be an artist? The students are each asking in their own way, “Is art for me? Am I good enough? Unique enough? Talented and skilled enough? Or is my art just a cheap copy of someone else’s…am I just a cheap copy of someone else?”
Yaguchi faces the harsh reality that he cannot seem to break away from copying, from playing it safe, to the point where he is now even copying himself, trying to repurpose his earlier, freer works into something that will please the judges and satisfy the parameters of the assignment set by his art prep school mentor. She sees right through him though, and pretty soon, to his horror, he sees it too.
Kuwana is also struggling. Beneath her calm exterior, she is battling to escape the long shadow cast by her older sister, who took the world by storm the year of her entrance exams and came in first place in anything and everything. Though she says it with a smile, Kuwana’s heart shatters every time she acknowledges that her art looks like her sister’s. She doesn’t want it to. But she can’t help but see that it does. Everyone speaks only of her sister’s genius when they look at Kuwana’s work.
Meanwhile, Takahashi is desperate to prove that he is worthy of being an artist, to the point of aggressively dismissing anyone (and particularly Yaguchi) who has not made the level of sacrifice or demonstrated the degree of single-minded devotion that he has. Only those without anything else to turn to can be worthy of a life in art. But he protests a little too much. Takahashi is plagued by insecurities and fear.
All three students are in search of their own voice, their own contribution to the world of art, their own place in the world itself. Each is trying to shake off the mounting doubt that art can ever truly be theirs, that it is available to them. Each is on a journey to cast off the expectations they feel so pressured to live up to, be it those set by themselves (Yaguchi and Takahashi) or by others (Kuwana). Each is on a journey of discovery that continues on throughout the series—a journey where they find that they are allowed to celebrate art in their own way, celebrate their own art, and just maybe, celebrate one another too.
They’ve each given their lives to art, and that is enough to qualify them.
“I never thought Christmas was for us.”
Who is Christmas for? Who qualifies? Is it the one who knows the history and meaning behind it all, like Takahashi’s knowledgeable approach to art? Is it the one whose family has celebrated it for generations, like Kuwana’s has done, each generation gaining admittance into the top art schools? Is it the one who discovers it seemingly out of the blue and throws themselves into it with all the enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy, like Yaguchi with his charcoal and paints?
Is Christmas only for those who know that it’s meant to be fruit cake that you eat on Christmas Day and not strawberry shortcake? Is it only for those who know how you’re supposed to decorate a Christmas tree—with balls and stars and candy canes and not with the crosses that a friend of mine once saw on a Christmas tree in a mall in Japan? Is it only for those who honor the true meaning of Christmas? And which true meaning is that exactly?
What even is Christmas?
The truth is, a great many of the traditions we have around Christmas are more so pre-Christian cultural holdovers than practices inspired by scripture. The tree, decorated and lit up, the meal with family, even the date that we celebrate—according to scholarship, Jesus was more likely to have been a September baby—these traditions come from the cultures that already existed before the people who practiced them came to know Christ. Christmas as we know it, even if we’re talking specifically about how it’s celebrated in church and not the wider, secular world, is largely cultural, it’s a product of syncretism between Christianity and European pagan festivals.
Yaguchi explains that the Japanese eat strawberry shortcake at Christmas because white and red are supposedly their favorite colors. It’s a syncretic tradition: a synthesis between Western Christianity and Japanese tastes and aesthetics.
Is this a bad thing?
Historically, the Protestant church has been quite vocal in its opposition to syncretism, viewing it as compromising to the gospel. The Catholic church, less so.
Here’s the thing though: Scripture is full of syncretism, only it calls it by other names—redemption, the family of God, the members of the body, each with its own purpose, the coming of the nations to the mountain of God.
Let me give you an illustration, taken from the sub-title to Psalm 84:
“For the director of music. According to the gittith. Of the Sons of Korah. A psalm.”
The Sons of Korah are incredible lyricists, but that’s not the most exciting part of this little inscription. Nope, it’s the gittith. This was a pagan musical instrument played by the enemies of Israel in worship to their idols and gods. It’s thought to have come from the people of Gath, in Philistine country. As in Goliath. At some point during David’s reign, one of these instruments (maybe more!) made it to the temple of God and into the hands of the musicians, where it became renown enough as an instrument pleasing to God in worship for the lead songwriters of the age, the Sons of Korah, to compose a lyric especially for it—and one that, I might add, has continued to inspire hymnodists, worship leaders, and congregations for thousands of years! (“Better is one day in your courts…“)
What if strawberry shortcake is Japan’s gittith?
What if anime, manga, otome, summer festivals, idols, and even mountaintop shrines are all just waiting to become Japan’s gittith, that is, Japan’s redeemed contribution to the worship of the Lord; the beauty and skill that is uniquely this nation’s to exercise as a member of the body of Christ? To carry with them up to Mount Zion and into the family of God? What if they’re already in the midst of that redemptive transformation, if only we have eyes to see it?
What I’m really asking here, is what if the gospel allows for people to retain their culture and instead of replacing it with something more familiar to established Christians, redeems it, washing it clean in the way that Gaheret recently wrote about, and restoring it to the original purpose for which God inspired its creation in the first place?
Because it is God and not the enemy who is Creator and thus creative. It is God who is the source of every good gift and every form of beauty. God is the original cultural architect. And he still has the blueprints; he still has a heart to see his creation redeemed, every last musical instrument, every last work of art and even each recipe. (Remember the raisin cakes! Those delicious delicacies that could lead men astray from the Lord, or symbolize their deep love for him, depending on the heart of the diner…compare Hosea 3:1 and Song of Songs 2:5.)
God is already present in Japan and always has been. He is at work throughout Japanese history and culture.
Yaguchi is able to recognize and affirm to Kuwana what it is that she brings to art that no one else can. What if we, as Christians, were to celebrate other cultures and Christian traditions in this same way?
So what if strawberry shortcake is just as much Christmas as fruit cake? And what if Japan has its own unique offering to bring to the Christmas table, to enrich it, beautify it, and thereby put on display the awesome redemptive heart of the Father?
“I never thought Christmas was for us.”
Sae—you dear, earnest supporting character with the cute bowl cut—it is. Christmas is most definitely for you.
Blue Period can be streamed on Netflix.