Unlike in Christian countries, Japan does not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.
However, there are special Christmas foods that Japanese people like to eat on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Some of these foods (KFC anyone?) might seem strange to Westerners, but they each have an interesting reason why they came about.
So, despite not being a Christian country, there is still a traditional Japanese Christmas dinner and Christmastime is still a holiday when families get together to enjoy their country’s Christmas food traditions.
Don’t expect to find Christmas pudding, turkey, or mince pies though!
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History of Christmas in Japan
When St. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan, he was the country’s first missionary to arrive. His aim was to convert people in Japan to Christianity.
He didn’t do awfully well at this, and Shintoism and Buddhism prevailed as the country’s main religions.
St. Francis Xavier arrived in 1549 but it was a few years later that Japan started celebrating Christmas.
However, some sixty-five years later in 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shōgun who ruled from 1603, was skeptical and outlawed Christianity. Anyone who followed the religion was severely punished. This meant that Christmas celebrations faded.
From 1868 – The era of the Meiji Restoration, Japan began opening itself up to the wider world again. There were many societal changes, including religious liberty. This meant Christmas and its customs were able to come back.
When World War II hit, Christmas celebrations fizzled out a little as they were seemingly very ‘American’.
However, once the war was over, there was a huge American influence in Japan and Christmas became more popular than ever before.
This was when the first Japanese Christmas food tradition began: the Japanese version of a Christmas Cake.
Japanese Christmas Cake
Japan, like many countries that celebrate Christmas, puts an emphasis on sweet foods during the holiday.
Their version of Christmas Cake is actually more like a strawberry shortcake and it’s the traditional dessert for the Christmas Eve meal.
The first-ever Japanese Christmas cake was sold in a Fujiya store in 1910. It wasn’t designed for Japanese people, rather foreigners who lived in wider Yokohama.
In those days, this cake was much more like a traditional British Christmas cake.
Later, In the 1920s – Fujiya’s founder visited the U.S. and saw how they did Christmas over there. He came back and realized he could make and sell Christmas cakes in Ginza, the central commercial district in Tokyo.
This cake’s popularity grew after WWII as it became a symbol of Japan’s prospering economy. Some people say that the cake was adopted because its decorations of red strawberries and white frosting are akin to the Japanese flag colors.
You see these Christmas Cakes all over Japan during the festive season and they’re often adorned with embellishments on a Christmas theme.
America has its sugar cookies, candy canes, and gingerbread men; Japan has wagashi.
These are small treats made from adzuki bean paste and mochi and they’re molded into all sorts of shapes and colors.
You’ll often find:
- Santa Claus
- and holly leaf wagashi
These treats are often a feast for the eyes!
Christmas wagashi often has traditional flavors like green tea, burdock root, and red bean.
The favorite festival tipple among adults is sparkling sake and champagne.
For children, however, it’s chanmery.
A portmanteau of ‘champagne’ and ‘merry’, this bubbly soft drink is typically sparkling grape juice, but it can come in other flavors too.
Children love this drink because it still gives off that popping sound of celebrating with champagne, but it is totally safe to pop around children.
This drink was created in 1947 by a beverage manufacturer called Tombow in Tokyo and it’s taken off hugely – not just for Christmas parties, but for all parties with children.
For many Japanese people, the distinctive “pop” when you open Chanmerry makes them reminisce about their own childhoods.
This might seem a little dd to anyone outside of Japan but for Japanese people, it’s entirely normal to book weeks and weeks in advance to make sure they get their KFC for Christmas.
This has been a tradition since the 1970s when apparently a group of people was unable to secure a turkey for their dinner, so they got KFC instead.
KFC in Japan then came up with an advertising slogan Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii, which meant Kentucky for Christmas.
The slogan worked and now KFC is a much-loved Christmas food throughout the whole of Japan.
If people don’t get a KFC, they would likely still eat chicken, whether fried, kara-age or teriyaki.
Traditionally a German delicacy, potato salad has become a feature in Japanese Christmas meals. It is often served as a side dish.
Yule Log aka Buche de Noël
Though the Japanese strawberry shortcake is more common, you’ll often see a Buche de Noël or yule log cake in many households too.
While this isn’t necessarily a Christmas dish, it is one that is served frequently at this time of year.
Cream Stew is made from pork or chicken, mixed vegetables, cabbage, potato, carrot, and onion.
They’re all served in a white roux. Some people think this is a traditional western meal and serve it as such.
Who doesn’t love pizza?
Again, this isn’t a Christmas meal per see, but it’s often eaten a lot on Christmas day because it’s seen as party food.
When do Japanese people eat their main Christmas meal?
Like lots of the Christian nations that celebrate Christmas, the main meal for Japanese people happens on the 24th of December.
Because it’s not a traditional holiday as such, many couples celebrate this together in a way similar to Valentine’s Day elsewhere in the world.
If they’re not going to KFC, they’re heading to swanky restaurants for a cozy, romantic meal.
The family celebrations around this period are reserved more for New Year than Christmas.
Final Thoughts – Traditional Japanese Christmas Dinner
How long does a tradition have to exist before it’s a tradition? Though the tradition of eating KFC for Christmas is less than forty years old, it’s certainly one that looks set to stay. All traditions start somewhere, right?
Compared to a lot of Christian countries, Japanese Christmases are new, and this means they’re still being established as a tradition.
With the passing of generations, who knows what traditions will continue over the next few decades! For now, though, enjoy that KFC, Christmas Cake, and Chanmerry!
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