A version of this post appears in the Palmer Sister City Newsletter this month.
As I write this, Christmas is fast approaching, and even here in Japan, there are many reminders. Japan celebrates Christmas in the same way it celebrates halloween – as an excuse to have a party, eat a bit of unhealthy food, and a new way for businesses to advertise.
However, because Thanksgiving is completely unknown in Japan, there is nothing to act as a buffer between the spookiness of Halloween and the cheer of Christmas. Any American living in Japan will surely lament an entire November of Christmas music and Santa displays at the grocery store. And once the day does come, it’s celebrated very differently. Living abroad over Christmas time makes one realize the effort that goes into this kind of tradition, and the importance of maintaining it.
Japan has its own Christmas traditions, which may seem rather amusing to someone used to Western-style Christmases:
Christmas Eve is romantic. That’s right, the night before christmas is not a night of peaceful reflection and quality time with family. With so few Christians in Japan, the religious meaning isn’t there. It’s a date night, pure and simple.
Christmas is all about the Christmas Cake. This tradition of eating a heavy fruit or sponge cake comes from the United Kingdom and the countries of the Commonwealth and is widespread in Japan. While America has a tradition of giving fruitcakes, the Japanese take their cakes much more seriously, often ordering them weeks ahead of time.
Christmas is also all about… fried chicken. At some point, it became common knowledge in Japan that this is what you eat on Christmas. Whether it stems from a misunderstanding of the turkey and poultry culinary traditions of the winter holidays, or an genius marketing ploy by KFC, a bucket of fried chicken is how a Japanese family rings in the holiday.
Christmas Day is not a national holiday. People go to work, and children go to school. Being raised to think of the day as special and a time for many important things – none of them work – it is very odd to go teach class or sit in an office on Christmas Day as if it were a day like any other.
All of this is not to say that the Japanese do not celebrate family and food and fun over the dark days of winter. A lot of the traditions that Western nations take care of on December 25th are just done a bit later by Japanese families, over the new year. That’s the time when you lie around the house, gain a few pounds from non-stop feasting, and make the long trip home through snowstorms and icy roads to share the physical and spiritual bonds of family. With that to look forward to only a week later, Christmas sounds like a pretty nice excuse for a romantic plate of fried chicken topped off with a slice of cake, doesn’t it?