Christmas: The Eastern Translation


Vibrant decorations light the malls and trees in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Japan during December. Photo courtesy of Jamie Mi.

A classic American Christmas brings to mind images of shimmering red, gold, green and blue lights lining neighborhood roofs, candy canes and inflatable decorations spotting front yards and paper snowflakes dotting windows. The colorful gift wrap of presents under the Christmas tree, adorned with various ornaments and lanyards and the fragrant aroma of fir, burnt wood and the Christmas feast ignite the Christmas spirit. 

While Christmas has a prominent presence in the United States and Europe, over 75% of Asian countries, according to Time and Date, do not consider it a public holiday, and Japan, an eastern archipelago off the coast of Asia, demonstrates a unique rendition of Christmas through its food. According to the Smithsonian, after KFC’s 1974 “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign in Japan, fried chicken became the classic Japanese Christmas feast.

“In America, I don’t think I would ever try KFC for Christmas dinner,” Chemistry teacher Reo Sato said, who lived in Japan until he was four. “It’s not something that happens in America, and growing up in America for most of my childhood and with American KFC, it’s weird. It’s fast food, and eating it for Christmas is just weird. If you look at the [KFC] menu from Japan or any Asian country, the quality and what they have are different.”

Another unfamiliar Asian custom lies in Cambodia, a country that borders the Gulf of Thailand in Southeast Asia. While Christmas is openly celebrated, the custom of gift-giving is not commonly practiced.

“I was surprised. I didn’t realise we didn’t give any presents. I think [my parents giving gifts] was influenced by American culture when they first came,” eighth grader Karen Heng said, who is Chinese and lived in Cambodia during her toddler years. “Most other families go out to eat and on vacation to the beaches and celebrate Christmas there.”

Although Christmas originated as a Christian holiday, Asian countries—except for the Philippines, Timor Leste, Cyprus, Asian Russia, Armenia and Georgia, according to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia—mute the religious tones of Christmas. In Japan, Emperor Akihito’s birthday on Dec. 23 and the New Year hold a higher importance to their culture than Christmas, which is only spent spreading happiness and good fortune—common blessings in Asian traditions.

Sato said his family never carried any Christmas customs from Japan to America but instead assimilated to the more celebrative practices.

“I celebrated Christmas like any other normal American family, ” Sato said. “Like putting the Christmas lights out and putting some decorations and Christmas tree ornaments on the Christmas tree but beyond that, there’s nothing really Japanese or anything like that involved.”

In South Korea, an East Asian country with Christians comprising around a third of the population, according to Pew Research Center, Christmas is celebrated as a national holiday, though with less passion than in America. With the recent introduction of Christianity to South Korea in the early 1900s, Christmas is a fairly new addition to South Korea’s collection of holidays. Unlike in the United States, where two weeks of break are provided for schools, Korean schools and most workplaces are only closed for Christmas Day and families meet up to eat.

“We just met together, and we had celebratory dinners, but it’s not an official tradition,” junior Annalisa Kim said, who visited and celebrated Christmas in South Korea when she was 10. “There’s nothing extra significant, but in Korea, it snows and it actually feels like Christmas.”

Throughout the years, American influence has become increasingly apparent in eastern non-Christian cultures and holidays, and Christmas is no exception. 

“I prefer a mix of both since there are also American aspects in Korean culture,” Kim said. “I feel like it’s just something that Americans do, so they do it. They still have Christmas trees and Christmas lights. Some stores and department departments will have huge Christmas trees, but that’s really only promotions for the stores.”

In fact, countries like Cambodia have been adapting more to American practices like gift-giving and carol singing.

“Families there started to see that in America we get presents,” Heng said. “So now in the modern days they start to give presents more.”

Even in America, Asian families prefer cultural meals over the classic turkey, ham and Christmas pudding.

“The traditional Chinese dinners that my relatives serve are the best,” Heng said. “More work is put into cooking home-cooked meals and these dinners only happen once or twice a year.”