Ever wondered how the Japanese celebrate Western holidays like Christmas? Learn all you need to know, from KFC with champagne and strawberry shortcake to the traditional Christmas Eve date night, here.

KFC, Strawberry Shortcake and Sparkling Wine — What Else Do You Need?

Christmas in Japan might seem like a jumbled mix of Western cultural icons topped with whipped cream and a Santa Clause garnish, but the tradition runs deeper than that. Sure, Kurisumasu has a lot of Western glitz, and KFC might be the holiday hotspot and strawberry shortcake the classic dessert, but like all things of cultural significance in Japan, Christmas foods serve a clear purpose and fit a harmonious aesthetic.

Dinner at KFC

Many Westerners would equate serving KFC on Christmas to holiday heresy. But in Japan, KFC is a Christmas institution, and for good reason: only about 1 percent of the Japanese population identify as Christian, so not many people celebrate Christmas or (obviously) Thanksgiving for that matter. Ultimately, there just isn’t enough demand to justify large-scale turkey farming, so what’s the next best thing? Chicken, naturally. And it’s not that eccentric if you think about it. Is eating KFC on Christmas in Japan that different from picking up a few California rolls when you feel like having a “Japanese” meal at home?

Getting KFC on Christmas in Japan isn’t easy, either; you can liken it to buying a new iPhone on release day. You have to preorder months in advance, queue in an extraordinarily long line and pay a relatively large cost — an eight-piece KFC Christmas Bucket Meal with sides costs over $35. For a little more yen, you can get a small bottle of KFC-branded sparkling wine to pair with it. And what about dessert, you ask? How does a Christmas-themed strawberry shortcake sound?

Strawberry Shortcake

When KFC is your go-to Christmas spot, nothing really stops you from going all out. Strawberry shortcake as the unofficial Christmas dessert? Why not! Strawberry shortcake has as much of a Christmas connection in Japan as fruitcake does in the West. So much so that researchers have published academic papers examining its influence in peer-reviewed journals. According to cultural anthropologist Hideyo Konagaya, PhD, the Japanese didn’t merely harvest strawberry shortcake from the canon of culinary Americana and transplant it into popular culture; they reinterpreted it to communicate the social relations, cultural values and distinct identity of post-World War II Japan.

You can find a lot of symbolism in the Japanese Christmas variant of strawberry shortcake if you know what to look for. The cake itself represents prosperity, as sweets were luxury goods in the years following the war. Also, the thick layer of whipped cream frosting and strawberries represent the white background and sun of the Japanese flag. But what if you have a date on Christmas Eve and KFC and strawberry shortcake just won’t cut it? Easy — you indulge yourself and your partner in fine dining as if it were Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day on Christmas Eve

Some couples simply go with KFC on Christmas Eve and call it a day. Others take it to another level and go full-on Valentine’s Day, replete with gifts, flowers and just about any Western romantic trope that comes to mind.

The Japanese more or less recognize Valentine’s Day on Christmas Eve, and dining out in style is on the menu. Eating out is so popular with couples on Christmas Eve that one restaurant banned couples altogether to prevent “severe emotional trauma” to its staff members, presumably because they are dateless and working. It’s not uncommon for couples to frequent high-end establishments such as Joël RobuchonQuintessence and Nihonryori RyuGin for a Christmas Eve of elegance.

Christmas in Japan… in America

If you’re in America and want to celebrate a Japanese Christmas, you probably have everything you need without leaving your neighborhood. If you want to celebrate the end-of-year, 100 percent Japanese traditions such as bōnenkai, shinnenkai and Shōgatsu, learn more here.