15 Japanese Christmas Traditions
Christmas is one of the most celebrated occasions around the world. Every country has their own way of celebrating the holiday, and Japan has some truly unique traditions when it comes to KURISUMASU (the Japanese pronunciation of Christmas).
When you think of Christmas, perhaps you think of Santa, presents or decorations. In the UK, we are famous for celebrating this yearly holiday through our markets and decorated shops, lighting up the biggest of cities. London is a prime example of this.
Japan is famous for a variety of things; sushi, sumo, samurai swords and temples are just a few of the images that may come to mind. But how do they celebrate Christmas compared to the rest of the world?
Here’s a look at the top 15 Japanese Christmas traditions:
Special Christmas Meal
This first tradition may come as the biggest surprise of them all! While many around the world have their own special Christmas meal (roast turkey being our tradition), the Japanese have a slightly unusual Christmas Day feast: fried chicken.
An estimated 3.6 million Japanese families enjoy a famous southern-fried chicken brand as their traditional Christmas meal. This tradition started back in 1974, when this famous fried chicken company launched a hugely successful national Christmas marketing campaign.
Today, it is tradition for families to get together and enjoy this Christmas meal. It is so popular that many order their special Christmas meal up to six weeks in advance.
Japanese Christmas Cake
During the Christmas period, Japanese Christmas cake is a popular delicacy. Known as ‘kurisumasu keki’, this delicious treat has been viewed as a symbol of prosperity ever since Japan rose from ruins after World War II.
The cake is traditionally a sponge cake, with whipped cream, strawberries and a small Santa Claus figure. However, this type of Japanese cake was not originally created for Christmas; it was a cake for celebrating birthdays.
It wasn’t until the 1950s when it became a Christmas treat in Japan, being served as a popular dessert on Christmas Eve. Since then, the tradition has continued with the Christmas cake coming in a variety of types and flavours.
Stunning Winter Illuminations
The Japanese are among the best when it comes to celebrating festivities, especially when they involve illumination! The country lights up during this time of the year, from shopping centres, to restaurants, to public areas; you will experience some of the most incredible and mesmerising light displays.
Japan takes Christmas displays a step further than most countries, decorating their most famous landmarks with unique festive lighting displays. If you’re interested in seeing these displays, Tokyo station and the Kaiyukan Aquarium in Osaka are two locations not to be missed.
Unique Christmas Markets
Throughout the most festive time of the year, Christmas markets are a global phenomenon, attracting tourists from all over the world. German markets are among the most well-known; however, Japan’s Christmas markets are also incredibly popular.
Across the country, Japan hosts these markets from the beginning to the end of the winter season. You will find a variety of seasonal things, from delicate tree ornaments to mulled wine, the most famous drink associated with this time of the year.
Tokyo Disneyland and Disneysea are hugely popular holiday destinations throughout the year, but during the Christmas period, they transform themselves to match the excitement of the occasion; their décor, festivities and Christmas parades are incredibly magical.
Enjoy the special ‘Christmas Fantasy’ event, based on the theme of ‘storybooks filled with the Disney Friends Christmas fun’. If stunning parades and decorative lights are not enough, you can enjoy fireworks, special gifts and a delicious Christmas menu, making Tokyo Disneyland a truly remarkable location to visit during Christmas time.
The Christmas Tree
A huge part of Christmas is the tree. Throughout the world, these tress are decorated beautifully, becoming a sought-after tourist attraction. The Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree in New York is iconic, with millions travelling from all over the world to catch a glimpse of the decorated wonder.
In Japan, the Christmas tree tradition was brought to the country by Christian missionaries; however, it was not until 1910 when the first modern Christmas tree appeared in Ginza.
The Japanese decorated the Christmas tree with traditional ornaments in the beginning; these included small fans, paper lanterns, origami birds and animals. However, during the 1920s, Japan began using more westernised Christmas decorations, becoming the main manufacturer of Christmas decorations, from Christmas tree lights, Christmas toys to artificial Christmas trees.
The History of Santa in Japan
Did you know the earliest recorded Christmas celebration in Japan was way back in 1552? However, many believe small Christmas celebrations started in 1549, when Saint Francis Xavier arrived in Japan. This tradition continued until 1635.
However, it wasn’t until 1875 when Santa first made an appearance. In Tokyo, at the Harajo School from Ginza, a Santa Claus dressed as a Samurai appeared at the Christmas celebration, and in 1898, a children’s book about Santa was published – titled Santakuro.
Japanese Christmas Music
Christmas music plays a huge role in the build-up to the holiday. Throughout the world, Christmas music is played at least a month before the day arrives, dominating radios wherever you go. Who doesn’t love singing along to Slade, Mariah Carey or George Michael during December?
During this time of the year, Japan has incorporated their own pop culture in the lead up to Christmas. Before December begins, you will hear Christmas music take over, including a mix of traditional and foreign pop songs.
Also, at this time of the year, you will find a huge array of TV and anime episodes featuring a Christmas theme. Here are some of the most popular Japanese Christmas songs:
- Tatsuro Yamashita – Christmas Eve
- Junichi Inagaki – At the Time for Christmas Carol
- Yumi Matsutouya – My Baby Santa Claus
- Keisuke Kuwata – Snow White
- B’z – Itsuka no Meery Christmas
One piece of music is particularly famous around Christmas and the end of year in Japan, and this is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its final act the ‘Ode to Joy’. In Japan, it is simply known as ‘daiku’ (meaning number nine.) It is thought to have been sung in Japan at Christmas by German prisoners of WW1, becoming more popular over the years.
Christmas Eve is Celebrated More
Christmas Eve is the final day you can prepare for the festivities. To many, this is their busiest day, ensuring they have everything prepared for the next day – this includes anything from food, wrapping paper, last minute shopping and any final preparations which need to be made.
In Japan, however, Christmas is known more as a day to spread happiness, rather than being viewed as a religious celebration. As a result, Christmas Eve is often celebrated more than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is similar to the way we celebrate Valentine’s Day in the UK; it is seen as a romantic day where loved ones get together and exchange gifts.
Due to this, trying to book a table at a restaurant on Christmas Eve in Japan is nearly impossible.
Osaka Castle Illumination
Osaka Castle itself is a beautiful sight, yet during the Christmas period, it transforms into a magical and stunning vision. One of Japan’s most memorable attractions is the Osaka Castle 3D Illumination. This rare treat allows you to see light and sound shows with a spectacular 3D projection of maps onto the castle monument.
These images represent much of the castle’s history. Last year was the 150th anniversary of Osaka port’s internationalisation, and to celebrate this, blue lights were included to display the port. These 3D illuminations are a remarkable sight to witness.
The Christmas Bonsai
The Bonsai tree was introduced to Japan by Monks who learned the techniques required for making miniature trees. Many believed Bonsai trees symbolised the harmony between man, soul and nature.
With time, bonsai trees made their way from the monasteries of the monks to the homes of the royals and the affluent, becoming status symbols reflecting honour. It wasn’t until medieval times that Bonsai trees became available to Japanese people of all classes.
Today, the bonsai continues representing the culture and traditions of Japan, becoming a beloved symbol of Christmas and New Year.
Unique Japanese Christmas Cards
This is a highly creative Japanese tradition during the Christmas period. Christmas cards are a popular tradition to send to friends and loved ones during this festive time of the year, and Japan has some of the most creative and beautiful cards.
Japanese-style pop up Christmas greeting cards come in a variety of designs, showcasing some of the most famous buildings and sights Japan has to offer – including Mt. Fuji, Kinkakuji Temple, Sensoji Temple and Osaka’s Dotonbori.
For Japanese Christians, which comprises only 1% of the population, Christmas is a time for good deeds, worship and helping charities for the poor and sick, and for these Christians, it is a well-known tradition to raise money for charity during Christmas.
Hoeiosho, the Japanese equivalent of Santa Claus is a Buddhist monk who bears gifts for children. The family members share gifts and cards of love and true meaning during the Christmas period, as it is a top Japanese tradition to spread love.
The nativity scene also is a huge part of their Christmas, with children re-enacting the Nativity scene on Christmas Eve.
Yuzu is a citrus fruit and plant used throughout Japan, similar to a lemon. As the period from November to January is yuzu season, winter is the prime time to use this Japanese fruit. Throughout the Christmas season, you will find yuzu everywhere; from yuzu-flavoured KitKats to yuzu tea.
Yuzu baths are also popular among Japanese during winter. People will put slices of yuzu in a bag and place them in hot bathwater. These baths are believed to prevent sickness and purify the body during the colder seasons.
Japanese Christmas Wagashi
Japan is famous for a number of popular and delicious sweets, and Wagashi is one of these. This traditional Japanese sweet is loved during the winter and Christmas season, coming in a huge array of designs and flavours to match the Christmas theme.
These include reindeer, Santa, holly leaves, puddings and snowmen shapes. Despite their various shapes and sizes, the sweets stick to their traditional flavours, consisting of red bean, burdock root and green tea to name a few. These are a delicacy to enjoy during the Christmas period.
Japan is a country famous for its culture and traditions during the Christmas season. If you’re looking to enjoy Japanese cuisine with a unique dining experience, come to Sapporo and watch our highly experienced chefs prepare a delicious meal just for you. Take a look at our Christmas menu and book your table today at either our Japanese restaurant in Manchester or Liverpool.