Christmas in Japan
Christmas has been observed in some form in Japan since the late 1800s. Since the Christian population in Japan is around 1%, Christmas has been a mostly secular event and many Christmas traditions have been started by the food industry and the media. Japanese people put up Christmas trees and exchange presents just like in Western countries. but there are some Christmas customs that are observed only by the Japanese.
The tradition of serving sponge cake with whipped cream, festooned Christmas decoration was started circa 1910 by the confectionary company, Fujiya. Back then, cakes were rare and expensive treats that people could afford only on Christmas.
Christmas cakes usually come with candles, which no one seems to know the purpose of yet nobody questions. (I like to think they are birthday candles for Baby Jesus.) Usually, after they are lit, participants sing a Christmas tune, like Silent Night, and everyone blows out the candles at the end of the song. The partaking of Christmas cake is probably the most popular Christmas tradition in Japan and very often the only one observed by families.
Christmas Eve - A Night for Couples
In Japan, Christmas Eve is considered to be a night when couples spend time together (very much like Valentines Day in Western countries), making it a very stressful time for singles. I strongly believe this tradition has been started by one '80s hit tune, "Christmas Eve" by Yamashita Tatsuro. It starts out "Since you probably won't be here with me It will be a lonely Christmas Eve." It was during Japan's asset price bubble and couples exchanged pricey gifts, like jewelry from Tiffany's.
After the recession, the extravagant gift-giving has dwindled down, but Christmas Eve continues to be a romantic evening for couples.
Curiously, more people in Japan celebrate Christmas Eve than Christmas Day. I am not sure why but I imagine that the word "Eve" sounds more special. Some people open their Christmas presents on Christmas eve.
These days people seem to spend Christmas Eve with their significant others and Christmas Day with their families.
Turkeys are not widely available in Japan and even if they are, ovens used in Japan are not large enough to accomodate such large birds. Hence, the popularity of the Christmas Chicken. In late November, KFCs in Japan start taking orders for the Party Barrel, which is essentially Christmas dinner in a box. It comes with fried chicken, salad, Christmas cake and a commemorative ceramic plate. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, KFCs all over Japan are packed with customer picking up their Party Barrels.
Department stores, convenience stores, hotels have started selling Christmas chickens which are now not just fried but available roasted and baked whole, making them strong competitors to KFCs Christmas chicken sales.
Christmas Boots filled with candy and toys are popular gifts for little children which they often receive from their grandparents. When you think of it, boots are a better container than stockings because they can be filled with more treats and they can stand on their own on store shelves without requiring hooks.
I am sure most kids have worn empty boots on their feet. I have.
Christmas lights in Japan are called "illumination." Streets and parks in Japan are lit up and viewing of illumination is a major Christmas event, sometimes causing such traffic disturbances that they have to be cancelled. Many households put up Christmas lights on their houses as people in Western countries do.
Placing Christmas Present at the Bedside
In Japan, most Japanese people do not put their presents under the Christmas tree. It is customary for parents to leave Christmas presents to their children at their bedsides while they sleep, a la Tooth Fairy. I imagine this custom started many years ago when not every Japanese household could afford Christmas trees during the holiday season. I like this custom better because this way, because the gifts would the be first thing the children see on Christmas morning. This custom still continues, even when more and more Japanese families put up Christmas trees.
Have a Merry Japanese Christmas