What It’s Like to Spend Christmas in Japan: Five Unique Holiday Quirks

What’s in a Japanese Christmas?

One of the questions I get asked most around the holiday season is: what is Christmas like in Japan? Before moving there myself, I honestly had no idea if Christmas was even acknowledged as a holiday at all.

But when December rolled around, it became pretty clear that Japan does indeed celebrate Christmas—just not in the way you might think! 😀

On Again, Off Again: A Short History of Christmas in Japan

Christmas has a bit of a rocky history in Japan. Christianity was first introduced to Japanese society in the 16th century, and the first Christmas celebrations reportedly occurred in 1552. However, the religion was eventually banned by the shogunate in 1614, and Christmas essentially disappeared for about two and a half centuries.

Following the Meiji restoration in 1868, religious freedom became prevalent throughout the country. As Japan became more westernized, the idea of Christmas was gradually reintroduced into society.

Then came World War II, where “American” celebrations became largely unpopular. So, enthusiasm for Christmas festivities in Japan dwindled yet again.

It wasn’t until the post-war period that Christmas really began to take hold in the country. Despite having Christian origins, nowadays, the festivities are largely secular in nature. Taking advantage of the holiday’s commercial value, Japanese stores now set up Christmas trees, special holiday markets spring up all around, and the cities come alive with festive décor year after year.

Although the government doesn’t officially recognize Christmas as a national holiday (most people still go to work on Christmas Day), Japanese people have come to celebrate their own unique version of this festive season.

Five Unique Quirks of a Japanese Christmas

While there are definitely many similarities to how Christmas is typically celebrated in Western cultures, Japan has a very unique way of experiencing the festivities. Here are five interesting aspects that I encountered during the holidays in Japan.

1) Santa-san

Yep, you guessed it! Santa Claus is well-known for making his rounds across Japan, delivering presents to be opened by gleeful kids on Christmas Day. In Japan, he is affectionately known as “Santa-san.”

When I asked my elementary students if they did anything special for Santa-san on Christmas Eve, many of them said that they leave him green tea instead of milk! Then they told me all about the presents they hoped to get from him that year.

So, while the basic premise of Santa Claus is largely the same, Japanese people do have their own take on the tradition.

Interestingly, Santa bears a rather striking resemblance to Hotei, one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese mythology. Hotei and Santa share quite a few qualities: not only are they depicted as big, round, and jolly characters, but they also love children and carry large sacks with them wherever they go.

While Santa carries around presents, Hotei’s sack is often thought to hold more modest possessions, such as food and clothing to give to the poor. So, Santa’s widespread popularity in Japan may also have something to do with his likeness to this kind, lucky god.

2) Christmas Cake

Everyone enjoys eating their favorite desserts during the holiday season, and for Japan, that means indulging in a slice of strawberry sponge cake.

Come December, this so-called “Christmas Cake,” adorned with strawberries and any number of Christmas items, starts popping up in every bakery and grocery store across Japan.

But these tasty little pastries aren’t cheap! In fact, one small cake can range from ¥2,500 (~$28 CAD) to ¥60,000 (~$675 CAD!!!) depending on where you go.

At the local Châteraisé bakery in my city, a single 15 cm Christmas cake went for ¥4,500, which is about $50 CAD. So, if you’re gonna splurge on cake for the holiday season, make sure to bring some friends along to share in the fun (and the cost!)

3) Kentucky for Christmas!

Step aside, turkey! Here in Japan, fried chicken is the staple Christmas food. Actually, when I first heard that people flocked to KFC on Christmas Eve in Japan, I couldn’t contain my laughter.

It wasn’t the fried chicken itself that surprised me, but rather, that KFC in particular had somehow become a beloved holiday tradition. (Although on second glance, Colonel Sanders really does bear a suspicious resemblance to old Saint Nick…)

How exactly did this tradition come about, you ask? Well, in the 1970s, Christmas was still a relatively new idea in modern Japan, so the country didn’t have many established traditions that were associated with it. Then, everything changed when KFC cleverly launched its first “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign in 1974.

Suddenly, KFC party barrels were all the rage, and fried chicken became the hallmark meal of Christmas in Japanese society. KFC’s chicken sales can increase up to 10 times on Christmas Eve alone!

So, if you want to secure your family’s Christmas bucket, you better reserve one in advance or prepare to brave the lengthy queues outside the restaurant.

Not everyone gets their chicken from KFC, though. If your family isn’t picky about the source, you can also find a bucket of chicken at any store on Christmas Eve, or you can simply make it yourself at home. But if you’re on the hunt for a turkey dinner, you might be out of luck.

4) A Romantic Holiday?

Any hallmark movie can tell you that love is in the air at Christmas time. But in Japan, the pressure is on for lovers to celebrate on Christmas Eve, which is considered the most romantic night of the year.

In Western culture, Valentine’s Day is thought to be the token holiday for love and intimacy, but in Japanese culture, couples look forward to spending a romantic Christmas together.

A typical Christmas date could include walking through a holiday market, skating in a plaza, having dinner at a nice restaurant, and of course, exchanging thoughtful gifts. One of the most popular nighttime activities is taking a cheerful stroll through the local illuminations.

5) Dazzling Illuminations

Out of everything that I experienced during Christmas in Japan, illuminations were by far my favorite part of the holidays. No matter where you live in the country, the cities come alive with beautiful light displays in December. It’s always worth taking some time out of your schedule to attend a winter illuminations event.

If you ever find yourself in Gunma Prefecture around the holidays, then take a trip up to the Takasaki Pageant of Starlight display (高崎光のページェント). There you will find a beautiful collection of colored lights that light up the night sky.

There’s a gigantic Christmas tree, soaring towers, golden tunnels, and radiant arrangements of star-like bulbs scattered throughout the streets for all to see.

Illuminations usually start around the end of November and early December. On a mild winter night, you can take a walk around the parks and spend a few hours taking in the views.

Whether you’re in the bustling city of Tokyo or far out in the countryside, you’re sure to find some dazzling displays. And if you’re lucky, you might even come across a singing Santa or two!

Santa-san merrily singing 赤鼻のトナカイ, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” at the Takasaki Pageant of Starlight.

Make The Most of Christmas in Japan

So far, I’ve been lucky enough to spend two wonderful Christmas seasons in Japan. This year, I’ll be spending the holidays with family back in Canada while fondly looking back on all my far-away adventures.

If you’re keen on traveling over Christmas and are curious about how the celebrations play out around the world, then I highly recommend that you make Japan one of your Christmas destinations. You’ll be sure to have a fun and unique celebration!

Happy holidays!

Love, Day

Day Bulger
Day Bulger

Day is a graduate of the University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, and she taught English in Japan as a JET Programme participant from 2019-2021. She loves traveling the world, discovering new vegan recipes, and learning new languages.

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