Unlike the West, in Japan, Christmas is not a religious event. Rather, just like Halloween and Valentines Day, Christmas season is simply party time. So then, what kind of Japanese Christmas food do people have to get their winter holiday parties started? Let’s find out!
In Japan, New Years is a time to spend with family, and Christmas is a time to celebrate with friends, children, or lovers – opposite to Western cultures. The way Japanese people celebrate Christmas is not tied down to religious practices or remembering the birth of Christ; it’s about eating, drinking, and getting merry. Sometimes with Santa Claus, too!
Japanese people have picked their favorite parts of a Western Christmas for their own celebrations. So as well as Christmas parties and food, during the Christmas holidays in Japan it is common to spot Christmas trees and Christmas decorations in town centers and residential areas alike.
Until 1868, Christmas was banned in Japan, meaning that it’s a relatively recent celebration for Japanese people. Since then, it has been the focus of marketing campaigns and commercialized by brands from both Japan and overseas.
Many Japanese people actually celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, as they have work the next day. Christmas day is not a national holiday in Japan, which may explain why the majority of Japanese Christmas food is of the store-bought variety. It’s hard to create a veritable feast when you’ve just got in from work!
Christmas is also used, just like Halloween, as a hook for Japanese children to learn English and expand their horizons. What more motivation than presents and great food?
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Walking around town in Japan on the 23rd, 24th, or 25th of December, you’ll likely find people lining up around the block for one shop in particular: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
That’s right, the ol’ Colonel’s fried chicken is Japan’s number one Christmas food. It’s such a given that not only will potential customers have to line up for hours to get into the shop, there’s a good chance that going too late will result in the KFC chicken being sold out. That’s why reservations are usually made starting as early as early November!
The reason for the chicken? There are several theories, but the most common is pretty straightforward. In Japan turkey is very rare, so after WW2, people started eating chicken at Christmas.
Fast forward to the 1970s and KFC Japan started a country-wide marketing campaign: “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (‘Kentucky for Christmas’ or ‘KFC for Christmas’), alongside the launch of their new Party Barrel of chicken. Commercials included loving couples heading to KFC together to buy their KFC Party Barrel – just for Christmas.
Everyone knows that Japanese people are exceptionally responsive to marketing. Brands like KitKat and Lotte did the same with Valentine’s chocolate. Especially as Japan was entering their ‘boom’ years, when there was an increase of interest in American culture and a desire to be accepted by the West, the KFC campaign caught on dramatically.
So Christmas equals KFC for many Japanese people. Don’t be surprised if a Japanese friend brings along KFC for the Christmas dinner.
No Christmas is complete without a cake, of course. But Japanese Christmas Cake is not like the West, at all. Instead, a Japanese Christmas Cake or ‘Kurisumasu keki’ is a mountain of whipped cream and strawberries.
Head to a Japanese convenience store around Christmastime to spot the ready-to-order Christmas Cake selection, often on a poster inside the store. The ‘traditional’ flavor is strawberry shortcake but variations include chocolate cake, yuzu (Japanese citrus) cake, or even matcha green tea (Japanese powdered green tea) cake. Each features a heady amount of fluffy whipped cream and at least one Christmas decoration to top it off.
Some people enjoy making their own creative Christmas cakes with all of the same ingredients, but with their own unique designs.
Why is the Japanese cake so different from Western styles or heavy fruit cakes?
The Japanese Christmas Cake has been around since after WW2, when Japan was occupied by American soldiers while recovering from the war. Compared to the rationing that took place during wartime, the ingredients in sponge cake and desserts in general were seen to be luxurious and decadent – perfect for a post-war era.
Across Japan, the middle class looked for ways to distinguish themselves and one of the ways to illustrate class and modernity became a big cake with hard-to-access ingredients. In this case, sugar.
Another notable advancement at the time was the home refrigerator, which meant that cakes could be refrigerated when returning home, and whipped cream could be used in cakes in place of buttercream.
The Christmas Cake was popularized by Fujiya, a fancy cake shop with bases in Ginza and Yokohama. In 1963, they sold over 2.5 million cakes during the Christmas period alone!
Aside from Christmas Cake and KFC’s Christmas chicken, Japanese people celebrate Christmas by drinking champagne or a sparkling grape-flavored drink: Chanmerry. Chanmerry is a mixture of ‘champagne’ and ‘merry’ (for Merry Christmas).
Another common Christmas food you’ll see at a party is at least one bowl of Japanese-style potato salad, said to be influenced by the German Christmas Eve tradition of eating potato salad on Christmas.
Celebrating Christmas in Japan, whether with friends, family, or that special someone can be very fun. There is often present-giving among young adults or at Christmas parties, and for families with children, even a visit from Santa Claus.
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