For at least four thousand years, since the ancient festival of Zagmuk, December 25 has been celebrated. The Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuk lasted twelve days, including December 25. During Zagmuk, the Mesopotamians visited friends, exchanged gifts and walked in processions complete with lights and songs. Just as some do today, the Mesopotamians also went singing from door to door.
As the center of Western culture moved west from Mesopotamia to Rome, the Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuk moved too. Like Zagmuk, the Roman celebration included visiting friends and exchanging presents. One of these gifts was cake. The Romans also began to decorate their halls with greenery and candles.
The Roman celebration was Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The middle of the Saturnalia celebrations was on December 25. The Romans calculated that December 25 was the winter solstice. As the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice has always been an important day for most agricultural societies to celebrate, to scare away the dark times and rejoice that the days will get longer, leading to planting.
Eventually, Christmas became a religious holiday for Christians when they declared that Jesus was born on that day. Christmas was a predominantly Christian holiday for hundreds of years, but nothing lasts forever. Over the past several hundred years Christmas has become more of a commercial holiday, focusing on Santa Claus, giving and receiving presents, and having a good time. Thousands of Christians, disappointed in this have turned their back on Christmas and now celebrate the Festivals of the God of Israel.
Now, thousands of years and thousands of miles from the Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuk, Japan has its own form of Christmas, shaped by some of the old aspects of Christmas and some new ones: Kentucky Fried Chicken and Fujiya Food Service Co., Ltd. Fujiya is a Japanese confectioner founded in 1910 in the city of Yokohama. These two corporations, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Fujiya, have helped to shape modern Christmas in Japan.
Colonel Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken came to Japan in 1970 when Japanese were eating much less meat and poultry than today. Kentucky Fried Chicken was striving for success in Japan, but not finding it. As a Christmas promotion, Kentucky Fried Chicken tried to market fried chicken as a Christmas treat. Kentucky Fried Chicken employees dressed up in Santa Claus costumes and Japanese lined up to buy fried chicken, imagining it was a traditional American Christmas dinner.
Every year in Japan, millions and millions of Japanese now purchase Kentucky fried chicken for their Christmas dinners. Millions of other Japanese also serve chicken as part of the Christmas dinner. Japanese look at Colonel Sanders and note his resemblance to Santa Claus. In Japan, Christmas now means fried chicken and KFC.
Japanese are also interested in traditional American desserts. In 1910, the Fujiya Co. sold the first Christmas cake in Japan, which was a sponge cake decorated with strawberries and chocolate. Topped with cream and a sugar Santa Claus figure made from sugar, the cake finally became popular in the 1950s. As economic success came to Japan, the number of Japanese families with refrigerators grew.
Almost everyone had a refrigerator by the late 1960s, and the butter cream changed to whipped cream. Strawberries became available year round and became part of the modern Japanese Christmas cake. For some reason, Japanese imagine that their Christmas cakes are designed after American Christmas cakes. Americans in Japan do not see this, looking at Japanese Christmas cakes and thinking more of birthday cakes.
Other aspects of Christmas in Japan include the holiday being a romantic holiday to spend with your true love, including a romantic gift. Japanese also put children’s presents next to their pillows so they see them first when they wake up in the morning, and let’s not forget reservations. You will probably need a reservation to get that KFC chicken. After all Christmas is KFC’s busiest time of the year.
If this seems entertaining to you, imagine how entertained the Mesopotamians would be by how you celebrate Christmas.