Big in Japan | How KFC Became the Country's Traditional Christmas Meal

The Colonel is at the centre of a longstanding Christmas tradition. No, really.
KFC for Christmas in Japan
Photo: Courtesy of Black Diamond

Christmas might be the most wonderful time of the year – but it also often feels like the strangest. Pretty much every country has its own quirky Christmas tradition: Slovakian singletons bake the name of their crush into dumplings; Over in the US, you’ll find a pickle ornament on many a Christmas tree; And, come December, every Irish village will be thronged with brave souls attempting the holy grail of the Twelve Pubs of Christmas.


"That's right: The Japanese traditionally eat KFC at Christmas. 'Oh no they don’t,' you might cry…"

That said, Japan must have one of the quirkiest traditions of all: on Christmas Day the country skips out on turkey, ham or what we in the west might consider ‘normal’ Christmas dishes in favour of a box of Colonel Sanders’ finger-lickin’ good stuff. That’s right: the Japanese traditionally eat KFC at Christmas.

“Oh no they don’t,” you might cry. But this is no joke. The KFC Christmas tradition is a longstanding one, dating back all the way to 1970 when Takeshi Okawara, the first KFC manager in Japan, awoke one night with a brainwave. This Christmas miracle? The idea to sell a party barrel of chicken to families for Christmas.

Okawara’s plan went country-wide in 1974, and his “Kentucky for Christmas” slogan was an instant hit. Japan, a country where just one percent of the nation is Christian, had no previous Christmas tradition so there was more than enough room at the inn for the idea of KFC Christmas to catch on.

Since then, it’s gone from strength to strength. Today, the Christmas chicken bucket is so popular among Japanese families that orders are made several months in advance. It’s thought that a whopping 3.6 million Japanese families eat KFC for Christmas every year.

"It’s thought that a whopping 3.6 million Japanese families eat KFC for Christmas every year"

The idea that fried chicken could become the customary food for any occasion, let alone Christmas, might seem odd at first. But when you think about it, it makes a certain kind of sense. Squint sideways at a picture of Colonel Sanders and you could easily mistake him for a certain Mr. Claus. He’s got the snow-white beard and the jovial smile… really all that’s missing is the famous red hat.

And, to be fair, there’s nothing particularly “normal” about our own Christmas culinary preferences either. Turkey is tasteless, takes hours to cook, and is almost always bone-dry no matter how much gravy it’s drowned in. Bread sauce is just plain weird, and the less said about brussels sprouts the better. Compare all that to those succulent strips of the Colonel’s finest fried grease… We can’t help thinking maybe it’s about time the rest of us cottoned on to this offbeat Christmas custom.

Alanna MacNamee is a writer based in Dublin