Have you ever wondered how Japanese people celebrate Christmas? After all, Christmas is not a national holiday, and less than once percent of the population are Christians. Nevertheless, Christmas has had a huge impact in Japan with a big exception when compared to other countries that celebrate this holiday: there is absolutely no religion attached to the concept. As a result, Christmas has become a festive time of the year where Japanese people can go shopping, exchange gifts, enjoy Christmas lights and decorations, and have elegant dinners at luxurious restaurants without ever thinking of the religious aspects behind the holiday.
As a result, despite all the Christmas lights, markets, trees, and sales all over the country, there are quite a few differences when it comes to celebrating Christmas. You might hear songs like “The Little Drummer Boy” being played at shopping malls, but they have no meaning at all besides being considered Christmas songs. That’s part of the beauty of Christmas in Japan!
And since Christmas in Japan is a whole different concept, there is a tradition that many people overseas would find utterly bizarre, and it concerns the almighty Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC):
Over the past years, one of the many Christmas customs that can be found in Japan is celebrating the holiday with a huge bucket of KFC. Every winter, around the 23rd of December, Colonel Sanders will appear dressed up as Santa Claus, drawing enormous crowds thanks to the so called Party Barrel offer. Party Barrel being, of course, Japan’s version of the KFC Bucket.
As a result, KFC’s sales in December tend to be twice as high as those of other months. Unlucky customers who opted to buy one of these KFC buckets on December 24 at big locations, such as the ones in Shinjuku, can end up waiting two hours for their Christmas fried chicken.
That’s correct. People are willing to wait two hours just for some Kentucky Fried Chicken. That’s a level of commitment to this tradition that anyone outside Japan would find absolutely astonishing. After all, KFC is a fast food chain, and fast food chains usually do not get this kind of attention unless they are the first ones to open in a specific market, creating a quick craze that eventually fades and dies (we are looking at you, Taco Bell).
The tradition started when an expat buying fried chicken at a KFC location in the luxurious neighborhood of Aoyama mentioned that, since there was no turkey in Japan, chicken was the next big thing. The very attentive store manager then proceeded to tell higher-ups about their findings. As a result, KFC launched its クリスマスにはケンタッキー (Kentucky for Christmas) campaign in 1974, which became an instant hit that has not lost any steam throughout the years.
By 1985, Kentucky had launched its Christmas Party Barrel, which includes eight pieces of chicken, a dessert (tiramisu for the 2019 set), a side dish, and a commemorative plate for a staggering 4,100 yen.
This can be very expensive when compared to what Kentucky Fried Chicken offers in the United States, but alas, in Japan KFC has a different kind of pedigree. This is one of the reasons foreigners tend to extremely shocked when finding out how Japan associates KFC with Christmas. After all, in many other countries, Christmas is a holiday where people prepare spectacular dishes for Christmas dinners and lunches (depending on how each family celebrates, since there are families that will have dinner on Christmas Eve with one side of the family, and Christmas lunch with the other); and then you have Japanese people getting Kentucky Fried Chicken to celebrate an adopted holiday that has no true meaning for them. It’s a very fun example of how Western festivities can take a whole different shape in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The bizarre and incredibly popular custom has become so intense that people tend to pre-order their Party Barrels in advance so as to avoid the crowds or being left without KFC for Christmas.
Japanese people never fail to create unique customs, and this campaign is exactly one of them. If you happen to be in Japan during Christmas and would like to partake in this festivity, go line up at a KFC and get your Party Barrel. If you have Japanese friends in town, then make the day even better by celebrating with them, KFC style.