Christmas time in Japan is a unique experience. While families may not take time off work to be together, they still find a way to celebrate the occasion and enjoy food that makes the day feel special.
While Americans spend Christmas Day filling their tables with turkey, ham, and homemade side dishes and bringing extended family together, the Christmas season is very different in Japan.
Japan is a mostly non-religious country so rather than focusing on Christian or religious traditions, Christmas celebrations in Japan center on Western culture. It’s a festive season for couples to celebrate love and spread cheer.
In fact, December 25th is not a national holiday in Japan and when the Japanese people celebrate Christmas, it is usually done on the evening of December 24th once Japanese children are out of school and parents are off work.
These simple Christmas traditions and celebrations usually end around 9 or 10 p.m., so everyone can get some rest to go back to work the next day. Large family gatherings are usually reserved for the Japanese New Year when Japanese families gather to welcome them in the new year. Japanese New Year is a much bigger public holiday.
While there are still festive Christmas lights, Christmas decorations, and gift-giving during the holiday season, Christmas Eve is a romantic holiday for couples to go out on a romantic date, similar to what you would experience for Valentine’s Day in the US, or for groups of friends to get together for small Christmas parties. It may be difficult to get a dinner reservation on Christmas Eve, but most businesses treat the holiday as a normal business day.
Some families may cook a meal at home for Christmas and give their children gifts from Santa, but traditional Japanese Christmas food is mostly fast food or party food.
Here are some of the most popular dishes served for the Christmas holiday in Japan:
Turkey is hard to come by in Japan, so most families opt for roast chicken or fried chicken as an alternative.
In the 1970s the fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken took advantage of this fact and designed a creative marketing campaign around having a “Kentucky Fried Christmas.” KFC Japan convinced people that fried chicken and Colonel Sanders are an American tradition and it quickly caught fire.
Since 1974, a bucket of KFC chicken has been a staple of a Japanese Christmas food celebration. It may also be an easy go-to dinner for parents to pick up for their kids before they head out for a date night. Today, meals from KFC around Christmas time often feature Western side dishes like cornbread, potato salad, Christmas dessert, and even champagne.
The meal deal has become so popular that families often have to order their meals weeks ahead of time and schedule their pick-up. The week of Christmas Eve is often the most profitable week of the year for KFC chains in Japan. Some local grocery stores or convenience stores even offer a generic version of fried chicken and sides to help meet the demand.
KFC is not the only fast food company that is popular for Christmas dinners in Japan. Pizza Hut and Domino are also big hits for the holiday and have designed creative marketing campaigns to ensure they stay at the top of mind during the holiday season.
Pizza is naturally a popular party food and a family favorite, so it wasn’t a big jump for these companies to promote pizza in the same way KFC promoted their fried chicken as perfect for a quick Christmas meal.
Many companies have taken their marketing even further by offering special seasonal toppings for Christmas like vegetables, roast beef, and chicken. They may also offer to split pizza into four sections with four different toppings so everyone can get exactly what they like on their slices.
Christmas in Japan doesn’t focus much on religious symbols, but Santa Claus and his reindeer and other festive decor are still prominent. Japanese Christmas cake is the perfect way to bring this festive decor to the table.
It is a simple, round white sponge cake, layered with red strawberries and topped with white whipped cream that looks like snow. Colorful holly, faux Christmas trees, or a Santa figurine make the strawberry shortcake dessert very festive.
You can’t have fried chicken without some potato salad! This simple, affordable side is often found alongside chicken at the Christmas table.
Potato salad is not an uncommon dish to find in Japan year-round but the fact that this side dish can be served in the form of a wreath makes it especially fitting for a Christmas meal.
Chanmery is a fizzy, non-alcoholic children’s party drink that is popular for kids or adults on Christmas. The name is a combination of “champagne” and “Merry Christmas” but the drink is a simple sparkling juice that tastes like grape juice.
It’s a favorite party drink for kids but may also be enjoyed by adults who don’t want to drink on a work night.
Adults who do want a little alcohol might enjoy warm sake. This traditional holiday drink pairs well with salty dishes and is perfect for warming up on a cold winter evening.
Sake may be considered rough and acidic to some, but when it is warmed the heat helps to balance out the flavor to make it lighter and more enjoyable. The heating process may even make a low-quality sake taste richer which makes it a popular choice for simple parties.
Chirashi Sushi translates to scattered sushi and this colorful dish is a popular dish for parties. Rather than serving rolled or sliced sushi, chirashi sushi is a plate of rice topped with all the veggies and colorful items you might find typically inside a sushi roll. All the color options are expertly laid out to bring a little beauty and festive flair to the table.
Because this dish is served at parties it typically is only vegetarian or made without raw fish.
While fast food reigns supreme, you may still find some homemade dishes served on Christmas Eve in Japan. Cream stew is one of these dishes. It’s a thick, creamy stew full of vegetables and chicken or pork.
Cream stew isn’t exactly a party food but it’s the perfect comfort food for families who are celebrating at home with their children.
Another easy homemade meal for Christmas may be tonkatsu. Like most other Japanese Christmas foods, this fried food is inspired by Western cuisine. It’s a simple breaded pork cutlet that is deep-fried and covered in a savory sauce.
This is a simple meal for families to make at home but just special enough for a celebration.
Other Japanese Christmas Traditions
Food isn’t the only Christmas tradition that Japan has adopted from Western countries. Japan has also established some very festive Christmas markets to celebrate the winter holidays.
These markets, inspired by Christmas markets in Germany, feature stands with vendors selling homemade Christmas ornaments, hot chocolate and hot wine. Local choirs may perform live for visitors.
The markets are open from mid-November through the end of the year, providing couples with a great date night idea for Christmas or any other evening outside of the official holiday.