In feudal Japan, Christianity was not very prevalent. But a small minority of people, including some of the social and military elite known as Samurai, was able to practice this foreign religion. Takayama Ukon was one of the most well-known of the Christian Samurais. Some were known to be martyrs, others killed in battle.
In 1565, there were two feudal lords whose troops were camped outside of Sakai engaged in fierce battle, less than 20 years after St. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan. Both sides’ armies included Christians in their ranks. They were able to congregate in a small chapel run by a Jesuit missionary in Sakai for midnight Mass. The troops ate a meal together in remembrance of the birth of Our Savior after prostrating themselves at the altar rails. Serving at the table was considered an honor by the young Samurai or warriors. They sought each other’s forgiveness for being forced against their wills to engage in combat before departing for their respective camps.
The first Christians in Japan observed Christmas in this way up until the great persecution of 1614, which expelled or killed missionaries and decimated the thriving Christian communities. The descendants of the early Christians did not forget the celebration of Christ’s birth even after a protracted time of seclusion. On “the twenty-fifth day of the month of frost,” they gathered in secret and listened to the elders recount how “Jesus Sama” was born in a stable that day at around midnight.
Christmas was once more observed in Japan with the same fervor and enthusiasm in 1865 after the missionaries’ return and discovery of the Christian communities there. Christians still had to assemble in secret for their Christmas Mass because the edict of persecution was still in effect.
The first Christmas Mass was said at the church in Oura, according to a letter written by Father Cousin, one of the French missionaries working there at the time. After several days of mourning and further persecution, the day of religious freedom eventually came.