This post was originally published on 3 January 2017. It was my first blog post and has been unedited since then. Here it is in all it’s “very first blog post” glory. Enjoy!
How do people celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in Japan? I think I can say that the holidays are officially over in Japan. Most people have come back to Nagoya after visiting family in their hometowns. They have either gone back to work already or will very soon. And if they have not started work yet, they are filling the shops and malls to take advantage of sales.
Christmas is not the big end-of-year holiday here, though it is present (good pun, Jennifer. Thank you, Jennifer). I don’t remember when I started seeing Christmas-y things around the city. Sometime in November.
Christmas is an interesting time of year in Japan if you come from a country that does observe it. There are some things that are the same. Like trees, lights, and Santa hats – after almost five years in Nagoya, I finally bought a Christmas tree this year.
It’s also not an official holiday, and most people have to work. Luckily, so far I have never had to work or attend classes on Christmas Day.
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When it comes to traditions, there are some things that are kind of similar, there are also some that are very different. But I think they all come together to make Japanese Christmas special in its own way.
Since I’m often thinking about food, I want to share three Christmas traditions here and how they are special to me.
That’s right. KFC. As in Kentucky Fried Chicken. For anyone who has been to Japan at Christmas time, this is old news. But if you are hearing it for the first time, it might be shocking. It might even be an insult on your deeply cherished Christmas turkey.
But it is what it is, and I think it’s kind of fun(ny).
So anyway, KFC starts advertising for its special Christmas meals in December or even November. A bucket of chicken with a bunch of other sides and…Actually, I don’t know exactly what is included in the deal because I have never had KFC at Christmas. Why not, you ask? Because it is incredibly busy.
It is so busy that I don’t think you can just walk in and order something. They only do pre-order. And I can’t justify the fore planning and energy spent in acquiring a Christmas dinner of KFC.
Apparently, KFC is the big thing at Christmas time for a couple reasons. First, I think it is simply the adaptation of a turkey dinner because it really is not all that different. It’s cooked poultry, is it not?
Also, most people here don’t have an oven. And if they do have an oven, it is likely not big enough to cook even a chicken. I don’t think I have seen a whole frozen chicken in the stores, let alone a turkey.
Buying a bucket of fried chicken just makes more sense.
Okay, so maybe KFC is not so special to me, since I’ve never had it at Christmas, nor do I have any interest in it. But I think it’s nice a little tradition. At least KFC must enjoy it. $$$
2 Christmas cake
When Japanese people find out that Christmas cake is not really a thing in my country, they’re surprised. We have different desserts though, like pumpkin and other kinds of pies, but no Christmas cake like in Japan. I would say that this is on the same level as KFC, maybe even more important.
You can’t imagine a Christmas dinner without a Christmas cake.
The most common variety is a white sponge cake with whipped cream frosting and strawberries. There are also chocolate cakes and others made with chestnut cream. The chestnut cream is really delicious, by the way.
Again, I don’t think I have ever had a Christmas cake in Japan, mainly because I can’t be bothered to fill out the order form and go pick it up on Christmas.
In place of Christmas cake, I made little desserts at home this year. I recently learned that I can make cookies in my toaster oven without burning the tops and leaving them raw in the middle. So, six at a time, I diligently baked gingerbread cookies, not gingerbread people.
I also melted chocolate and crushed candy canes to make peppermint bark. Oh, and I made eggnog, which I have never seen in Japan.
But I have yet to have a Christmas cake.
3 Dinner for two
Another thing about Christmas in Japan is that it is not so much a family holiday as it is a couple’s holiday. This can make it hard if you are here alone and used to celebrating with family. I was in a different part of Japan on Christmas when I was 19, and it was hard for me.
But! Now I am married, and I can enjoy the couple atmosphere that abounds.
Christmas Eve is a big date night, and you might be hard pressed to find a table at a nice restaurant without a reservation or a 30-minute wait.
In Canada, my family had a tradition of getting Chinese take-out on Christmas Eve, and I like that. To carry this on, every year in Nagoya my husband and I have gone out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve.
Couples also go to light displays, so those places can get busy. We went to one a few years ago, but since then nothing big. Sometimes I like to walk around places that I know have lots of light and Christmas trees in the hopes that I can feel a bit of Christmas spirit and maybe take a few nice pictures.
However, just when you might be starting to feel the Christmas spirit it’s over, and the country is getting ready for New Year’s. I started seeing decorations for sale before Christmas was even over.
This is the big holiday.
People have a few days or a week off work, and many go back to their hometowns to spend the time with their family. They eat food with symbolic meanings and visit shrines and temples to wish for luck or fortune in the next year. Small shops are closed for at least a day or two, and big shops put their old stock on sale to make room for new inventory.
While I grapple at the straws of Christmas a week earlier, I have less emotional attachment to New Year’s.
But because I am in a different country, I sometimes like to experience new things. My first New Year’s in Nagoya we went to Atsuta shrine because I wanted to see what it was all about.
It was a few days into January at that time, but it was still packed. There were food stalls lined up and down the street and into the entrance of the shrine. The pathway was full of people moving toward the main area, some bowing as they went through the gates.
After washing their hands with water and buying a charm from the shrine shop they slowly moved forward to the spot where they pray and throw money – coins and bills. It was quite a unique sight for me.
This year I wanted to check out the shrine at midnight to see what the atmosphere was like. Sitting at home though, I was starting to get bored/sleepy, so we went walking outside to wake up.
I ended up getting to the shrine around 10:30, and it was slowly getting crowded. People were buying and eating the regular Japanese festival foods, buying charms, taking pictures, and getting ready for midnight.
It’s also the year of the rooster now, and what better way to ring it in than by eating some chicken, which we did.
Alas, I was getting too cold and not interested in hanging around for another 90 minutes. I started walking home at 11:00 and passed more people walking toward the shrine.
A part of me regrets not seeing the excitement of the crowd when it reached midnight, but also a part of me said that was good enough and wanted to go home. So, no ragrets, right?
And no, I didn’t and don’t make New Year’s resolutions. However, I went to the gym today, and I see that many people did. But give it a few weeks, a couple months tops, and it should be back to normal.
And yes, I realize that the timing of this post gives the appearance of a New Year’s resolution, but I promise it’s not.
How do you celebrate the end of the year in your country?
Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? How did you do on last year’s?
Leave your comments below.