Many of you may wonder how do Japanese people celebrate Christmas. The holiday season is starting soon, so here is a summary of what you need to know about December 24 and 25 traditions in Japan.
Santa’s recent arrival in Japan
As you may know, Christmas was originally a pagan festival that became a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. It is mainly observed in the West and in countries of Christian tradition.
In Japan, Christianism is a minor religion (only 2% of the population, about 3 million persons), and Bouddhism and Shintoism are the main religions. Christmas is an imported commercial holiday, such as Halloween and Valentine's Day. Japanese people are not really interested in Jesus’s birth: it is about celebrating Santa Claus and offering gifts to children.
Like many imported holidays in Japan, Christmas barely existed in the 20th century but its importance increased exponentially over the recent years. December 25 is not a vacation in Japan and most of the children go to school on this day. However, December 23 used to be a holiday to celebrate the birthday of Akihito, former Heisei Emperor (from 2019 on, the anniversary of the Emperor celebration will occur on February 23, Reiwa Emperor Naruhito’s birthdate)
The celebration of December 24 and 25 in Japan
The custom of offering gifts to children is not a rooted tradition yet, but tends to spread, with more Japanese children waiting for Santa-san (Santa / サンタ). However, Christmas in Japan is still associated with love. On December 24 evening, in particular, young Japanese couples celebrate in declaring their love, exchanging gifts and possibly end the night in a love hotel.
It is not customary to prepare gifts for family and relatives (except for small children), however this time of the year can be associated with an older tradition in Japan: Oseibo (お歳暮), which consists in exchanging more formal gifts to maintain good work relationships. Such a habit also exists in July and is called Ochugen (お中元).
There are also more and more Christmas trees and decorations in the streets, especially in large cities. Tokyo, in particular, is adorned with beautiful decorations as soon as early November. Christmas markets have developed recently, and it is even possible to find some hot wine!
Nowadays, the Christmas themed decoration fad exceeds the limits of big cities and spreads to the most remote areas of Japan
A new tradition bringing new culinary habits
There is also a different culinary tradition for Christmas in Japan. It makes sense for a country so in love with food.
It began during the 1970s, when Western expatriates looked for whole chickens or turkeys to eat on December 24 and 25. At the time, KFC was the only provider for this product. The custom of eating chicken has gradually spread in the society and today many Japanese eat roast chicken (ロースト チキン) for Christmas. Kentucky (ケンタッキー, nickname for KFC in Japan) is quite happy with it, as its sales are multiplied by 5 to 10 times in late december. In 2017, the brand sold a record-breaking 6 billion yen (~US$ 54,392,660.60) of chicken between December 23 and 25 included.
The Christmas cake (kurisumasu keiki クリスマスケーキ) has also become a favorite present at this time of the year.
To wish 'Merry Christmas' in Japanese, just say "melii kurisumasu" (the same as in English!) or write メリー クリスマス. Some people even used an abridged version : melikuli (メリクリ) !