Celebrated as the birth of Jesus Christ in most western countries, Christmas in Japan is encouraged by the commercial sector of the country and became known solely as a festive event without any religious connotation. Christmas Eve is thought of as a romantic day, in which couples spend together and exchange presents.
Gifts are exchanged and children's presents are left next to their pillow at night. Christmas parties are held on and around Christmas Day; a unique feature of these celebrations is the Japanese Christmas cake, which is often a white whipped cream cake with strawberries.
The first recorded Christmas in Japan was celebrated with a Mass held by Jesuit missionaries in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1552. Some believe that unrecorded celebrations were held before this date, starting in 1549, when Saint Francis Xavier arrived in Japan to begin missionary work.
Starting with the expulsion of missionaries in 1587, Christianity was banned throughout Japan beginning in 1612 and the public practice of Christmas subsequently ceased. However, a small enclave of Japanese Christians, known as Kakure Kirishitan ("hidden Christians"), continued to practice over the next 250 years in secret.
Christianity and Christmas practices re-emerged at the beginning of the Meiji period. Influenced by American customs, Christmas parties were held and presents were exchanged. The practice slowly spread in major cities, but its proximity to the New Year's celebrations made it smaller in focus.
During World War II, all celebrations and customs were suppressed. From the 1960s, with the aid of a rapidly expanding economy and influence from American television dramas, Christmas became popular once again.
The "traditional" Christmas dinner is expected to include these foods:
- Christmas Cake
- The traditional Japanese Christmas Cake is different from a UK Christmas Cake or the American Fruitcake. The Japanese-style Christmas Cake is often a white sponge cake, frosted with whipped cream, and topped with strawberries.
- Christmas Chicken (KFC Fried Chicken)
- The notion of a Fried Chicken dinner in Japan on Christmas originated in 1974 when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Turkey on Christmas Day and opted for fried chicken from KFC instead. The company saw this as a commercial opportunity and launched a Christmas Meal combo specially for the season. The popularity of this venture, possibly due to how relatively new western fast food was to the country (the first KFC Japan opened in Nagoya in 1970), saw fried chicken become quickly imbedded in the image of Christmas Dinner in Japan. The popularity of fried chicken at Christmas today is such that orders are placed as much as two months in advance.
- In Japan, Christmas Eve is a popular event for couples to spend time together and exchange gifts similar to the way Valentine’s Day is treated in most western countries.
- The Love Hina X-mas Special: Silent Eve OVA is set during the days surrounding Christmas and explores the themes of love that Japan uniquely associates with the holiday.
- The Japanese New Year is more like a traditional Western Christmas. New year is the period where families get together, have a special meal, pray and send greetings cards. New year is celebrated over five days from December 31st to January 4th and is a very busy time.
- KFC's first Christmas meal in 1974 was the "Chicken and Wine" combo for 2,920 yen ($10). Today the "Christmas Chicken Dinner" combo (which now boasts cake and champagne) goes for about 3,336 yen ($40).
- "Christmas Cake" was also once used as an insulting term to refer to an unmarried woman over 25 years of age as "no one wants to eat or buy Christmas cake after December 25th" and no matter how attractive a woman is, it was said, "no Japanese male will want to marry her after she's 25". Thus, "Christmas Cake" is used as a metaphor term for a woman rendered unmarriageable because she is past the "freshness of her youth"; roughly equivalent to "Old Maid." However, many teens and young adults of today have never heard of the concept and many that have think it's old-fashioned, with the latest Japanese census data showing that more and more people are marrying older, beyond the age of 25. Another more modern, but no less blunt, term used in Japan is "Urenokori", which is a term for leftover items in a store's sale inventory.