Growing up, I dreamed of a Christmas like the one I saw in the movies. A big shining tree, a table surrounded with family, a house decorated in lights, and most of all the anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning to a tree filled with presents just for me.
Well, with my Asian mom around, all of the above seldom happened.
My Irish dad expected his wife to be in charge of making Christmas a joyous, holiday season — just like his mother did for him as a child. Instead of do it himself, my dad (like most men) had the unsaid expectation for my mom to accomplish all these things for his children.read more
Japan has this strange tendency to take western holidays and slightly alter them. I mean, look at Valentine’s Day–girls, not guys, give the chocolate and flowers–wha?
While China just plain doesn’t celebrate Christmas, the Japanese have, much like Valentine’s Day, adopted Christmas and celebrate it in their own special way. Japanese Christmas traditions are so strange and bizarre, most Americans are stumped–or frankly, borderline offended at the perception and celebration of this Christian holiday in the land of the rising sun.
Here are some Japanese Christmas traditions that have Americans shaking their heads:
Kentucky Fried Chicken!
In America, we roast a Christmas turkey or ham for the holidays. Maybe we’ll throw in some mashed potatoes, stuffing, and some pies for dessert.
But having KFC for Christmas? Now that’s just blasphemous.
In Japan, Christmas KFC has become a tradition. The Colonel somehow managed to link KFC and Christmas together many years ago with a promotional campaign, and it has stuck ever since. Families around the island of Japan gather on Christmas eve to partake in some Kentucky Fried goodness.
Even I wasn’t safe from this tradition way out in the boondocks of Niigata, Japan. In an effort to help me feel “more at home,” one of my host-mothers prepared a fried chicken meal just for me at our Christmas Eve dinner. Touching, but still, somewhat off the mark.
While it aint no turkey or ham, I guess KFC is probably a little more suitable than sushi or udon.
You Don’t Have Christmas Cakes in America?
In Japan, it is customary to order a Christmas cake in advance and enjoy it together as a family on Christmas eve, following the KFC. These cakes are specially prepared at bakeries and other shops around the country, decorated with Santa, Rudolph and other Christmas images we’re familiar with around the world. Japanese families book their Christmas cakes weeks in advance, and for them, eating this is a family tradition.
That’s why when I tell Japanese friends that we don’t have this so-called “Christmas Cake” in America, they think I’m lying. Cake and Christmas, that’s basically what America is all about!
While the Japanese Christmas cakes are delicious, I think I prefer our usual Christmas pies that my family has here in the states.
Got a Date on Christmas?
In the U.S., Christmas is a day for families. We try to go home to see our parents and relatives, and Christmas day is usually confined to the home where we eat, watch movies, talk, play games, and eat some more. The stores are closed and there’s not much to do other than stay in.
Japan? Well, you better have a date on Christmas in Japan or you’re just a poor, lonely loser.
K (my best Japanese friend) messaged me on Christmas eve last year saying, I don’t have a girlfriend or date on Christmas so I’m drinking alone on Christmas. Woe is me.
I thought: Wow, sounds like me on Valentines Day–but Christmas?
The Japanese use Christmas as a day to take their significant other out on the town. Restaurants are booked solid weeks–even months–in advance for Christmas Eve. Tokyo is filled with couples, arms locked, waltzing through the parks lit up with faux Christmas lights. Don’t even try to go to date-spot-Disneyland single on Christmas Eve–you might feel nauseous from all of the lovey dovey couples walking the park.
So while I was homesick for my family on Christmas in Japan, my fellow Japanese co-workers and friends were more concerned about getting me a date. Even my vice-principal tried to hook me up with another teacher on Christmas Eve. Awkward, but I appreciated the gesture nevertheless.
Christmas Presents? Only for My Girlfriend
On a positive note, Japanese people did not bring over the tradition of buying Christmas gifts for others. While some may buy Christmas gifts for immediate family members, most Japanese only buy gifts for their boyfriend or girlfriend.
My wallet is still bleeding from Christmas shopping in 2014, so buying just one present just for the boyfriend would have been a very welcome change.
Japanese Christmas Songs!
Last Year when I worked in Shanghai, my awesome boss Takada-san was telling me about Christmas in Japan.
“When I think about Christmas, Tatsuro Yamashita’s song comes to mind.”
“You never heard it?” Takada-san was astonished. “Let’s listen to it now.”
For the first time in five years, I’m spending Christmas at home. I’m not flying in on a 13 hour flight from Tokyo or Shanghai. I’m not spending Christmas in China and Lunar New Years in the states. I’m actually home during the holidays, and it’s a wonderful feeling.
I flew into Salt Lake City on Christmas eve and was greeted to a white blanket of snow on Christmas morning. It was the perfect Christmas present to my morning.
Although I’m spending the holidays in the United States, the month of December hasn’t felt much like Christmas because of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is 75 degrees and sunny everyday, and I’ve been wearing the same jeans and t-shirt since August. Until my trip to Utah for the holidays, my coat was still packed up in my suitcase from Shanghai.
Surprisingly, I miss bundling myself up in a coat, mittens, scarf and boots. I like feeling the cold against my face and the crunch of snow beneath my feet. I like having seasons.
I guess for me, Christmas is about taking the coat out of the closet. It’s about escaping the cold with a warm cup of tea or hot chocolate inside. It’s looking outside at the snow and feeling the serenity of winter’s silence.
Honestly, it didn’t feel like Christmas until I stepped into Utah. It made me wonder if people in Southern California have a difference perception of Christmas compared to others?
My family is but a small group of four. We only have each other here in Salt Lake City, but sometimes that’s all you need. I spent my Christmas day much like I spent it when I was eight years old–in my pajamas, opening presents, eating, and watching movies and playing games.
Although celebrating the holidays in Utah has been amazing, I miss my “Shanghai family.” I used to feel very lonely and isolated when spending Christmas in Asia, but last year I had assembled such a close and wonderful cast of friends, I found myself with another family outside of the United States. At my humble apartment in Shanghai last year, I had a room full of Italians, Russians, Japanese, Chinese, Americans–it was a smorgasbord of cultures all convening together for one purpose: to enjoy Christmas together.
That’s the worst part about being an international traveler, an ex-pat, a wanderer. You leave a piece of your heart wherever you go, and you constantly feel the pain of that empty space full of the memories of your loved ones, of the family you made in that land far away.
To my Shanghai family, to my Japan family, and to everyone all around the world–Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
And last but definitely not least: Happy Anniversary to my lovely boyfriend. Today marks our one year together and I couldn’t be happier. Although he’s slaving away on Christmas and this entire week, he has been my new family and life here in the United States. Thank you for helping me keep my sanity in Los Angeles, for listening to me complain about work and SoCal traffic, and for being the wonderful, kind, caring, and hard-working boyfriend you are. I’m lucky to have you, and here’s to many, many more years together.