Appropriately for a festival borrowed from abroad, a lot of the Christmas words in Japan are katakana words. Therefore リース (wreaths), プレゼント (presents), サンタクロース (Santa Claus), イルミネーション (illumination) often abbreviated to イルミネー (illumine), キャンディケイン (candy cane) and, of course, the クリスマス ツリー (Christmas tree).
One thing that is fascinating about Christmas in Japan is that a lot of the words are written in katakana, but they are clearly not English. Words such as トナカイ (tonakai, reindeer) are nice reminders that for the snowy season at least, the original settlers of Japan, the Ainu, get their chance to shine.
While most of the words are familiar to English speakers, some of the Christmas traditions are very different. One of the things that I always found strange is that Japanese クリスマスケーキ (Christmas cake) is considered a creamy sponge cake here instead of the usual fruitcake more common in the West. The emoji for Christmas cake on my phone is even a sponge cake.
Equally weird is that you will occasionally hear クリスマスケーキ used as an insult. The idea is that a person (usually a female) is attractive and eligible until their 25th birthday, but becomes less popular every year after, similar to the way that few people want to buy a Christmas cake after the 25th of December. With people increasingly getting married later, this phrase is rightfully becoming obsolete.
Christmas cake isn’t the only funny thing for foreign residents to experience in Japan. The tradition of eating クリスマスチキン (Christmas chicken) instead of turkey is also strange. There are many theories about why the custom took off in Japan, the dominant one being that chicken was the only vaguely turkey-like meat that American GIs could find here. As a result, Japanese people began mimicking this, and then, through a genius marketing ploy, KFC got seen as an acceptable substitute for turkey in Japan.
In Japan, eating the クリスマスチキン is something that most people don’t want to enjoy by themselves: you are expected to enjoy it with somebody, ideally a lover. In Japan you will hear people talk about where they are going for their クリスマスデート(Christmas date) and what their クリスマスデートプラン (Christmas date plan) is. Unfortunately, a lot of men and women who date foreign people can find themselves alone during Yuletide as their dates return home.
If you are in Japan around Christmas, don’t be surprised if you hear the word 第九（ dai kyu being used. 第九 is a word that few people except for professional musicians know, yet it is often connected with Christmas in the minds of older Japanese people.
The word is shorthand for 交響曲第9番（ koukyou kyoku dai 9 ban） or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The connection between this and Christmas is somewhat bizarre as the composition was used to commemorate the founding of Japan and so became a popular tune for musicians to play on the Emperor’s birthday, December 23rd. Due to the date’s proximity to Christmas, some musicians would put on performances of this song to make money and a tradition was born.
Not only is Christmas a great holiday for learning some fun words, it’s also a time to learn about the differences between Japanese and our own cultures over the festive period. So whether you want the traditional seasonal dinner from your home country (bring on the mince pies, gravy and turkey for me!) or would prefer to snack on a cream-filled cake and fried chicken with a date, Gaijinpot is wishing you an upcoming メリークリスマス!