Santa blasphemy, blue poinsettias and Xmas hats from hell
The first Christmas I spent in Japan, my head whipped around in a doubletake at the Santa with reindeer right next to a Godzilla made of white fairy lights. I stopped in my tracks when I heard churchy religious carols being played right alongside Jingle Bells in department stores. And I followed a baffling line of people around the block on Christmas Eve, to discover that it ended at my local Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It turns out that Christmas and New Years in Japan are celebrated sort of opposite to the way they’re observed in the West. Where I come from, Christmas is a big family holiday and New Year’s is about partying your brains out. In Japan, it’s New Year’s when family come together, and Christmas Eve is the second biggest romantic date night of the year.
And like most things in Japan, they get Christmas exactly, excruciatingly right, and at the same time so very, very wrong. Poinsettias are all the rage, lavishly-trimmed trees abound, and Santa and his helpers are on every corner, except sometimes they’re a little…
But it wasn’t until the Seven Inflatable Dwarves appeared outside the local supermarket, nodding along to disco hits of the 70s and the theme from Totoro, that I really took a deep dive into the oddities of Xmas in Japan.
But that’s just the beginning. Like everything in Japan, they’ve taken the most iconic holiday traditions from around the world and turned them…Japanese.
Let’s start with the traditional feast, shall we?
I’ve never seen a turkey for sale in Japan, and it’s not just because turkeys are too hilariously huge for a Japanese family to consume and people don’t entertain guests in their homes. It’s because traditional Japanese cuisine doesn’t involve baking and Japanese kitchens don’t have ovens. Ever.
Which also rules out the next best thing: roast chicken. But never fear, tradition can still be satisfied at…KFC! Huge numbers of Japanese are convinced that the most “traditional” Christmas Eve meal is a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Give that marketing man a medal—there is such a run on fried chicken on December 24th that it has to be ordered in advance, and the lines to pick it up are insane.
The fried chicken gobblefest is followed by another “traditional” food that exists nowhere else in the world: the fabled Japanese “Christmas cake.”
And now you also understand why single Japanese women who waited too long to get married were rudely referred to as “Christmas Cakes” in sexist days gone by—demand for whipped cream confections festooned with season-specific decorations is a lot higher on the day before Christmas than the day after.
But now for the main event: Santa blasphemy!
By now you’re probably wondering, why are there nearly as many costumes for sale before Christmas as before Halloween? Three words: company Christmas party. But what do you imagine happens as the second most romantic date night of the year approaches, and the standard way of displaying company spirit is by dressing up in seasonally-themed attire and drinking a lot?
You guessed it. Sexy Santa.
But of course, it’s not just people who get into the spirit of the season. From the land where pets wear clothes…
And finally, the most Japanese Santas of them all…
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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had