Ah, Christmas dinner—part farcical disaster, part cherished western institution. Slow, stressful, homely, messy, full of the chef’s idiosyncrasies—it’s the exact opposite of fast food. Yet, in Japan, Christmas dinner means one thing, and it isn’t a roast dinner or pigs in blankets: it’s a red and white bucket of fried chicken.
Bizarrely (and perhaps alarmingly), 3.6 million Japanese families eat KFC during the festive season. As December approaches, KFC staff prep the busy month ahead, in which sales can be 10 times the average. To get their coveted KFC Christmas dinner courtesy of the Colonel, Japanese families preorder weeks in advance or wait in line for hours on end to reserve their table to ensure they get the takeaway they desire.
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So how did this western fast food chain become synonymous with Christmas in Japan? To understand, you need to go back to the 1970s and a very clever marketing campaign.
Christmas isn’t really celebrated in Japan—where just 1% of the population is Christian—though it is acknowledged. It has a holiday status similar to Valentine’s day, a romantic time of year in which couples dine in fancy restaurants. One morning, in the ‘70s, KFC worker Takeshi Okawara woke with a start. An idea had visited him in a dream. He decided that for western people living in Japan—particularly wistful for their home comforts at this time of year—fried chicken could be a suitable replacement for turkey. And so, the KFC Christmas Party Barrel was born.
Okawara’s Party Barrel caught on in a big way. According to Joonas Rokka, a professor of marketing at the Emlyon Business School, it ‘filled a void…there was no tradition of Christmas in Japan, so KFC came and said, this is what you should do on Christmas.’
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KFC’s marketing plan, ‘Kentucky for Christmas’ was taken nationwide. And in Colonel Sanders they had a ready-made mascot, who promptly turned into Colonel Santa (genius, really), dressed in traditional red garb.
So, what does the traditional Party Barrel look like today? It’s not just legs and thighs. The Christmas Dinner Package can include chicken, cake and a special Christmas wine, with options for ‘premium’ roasted chicken and sides. If you can’t treat yourself at Christmas then when can you?
According to Rokka, the strange status of KFC in Japan is ‘a sign of globalisation, where consumer rituals spread to other countries and often get translated in different ways.’ Regardless of the reasons why ‘Kentucky Christmas’ caught the public imagination in the way it did, it seems like it’s in Japan to stay, passed ritualistically down from generation to generation.
It must be nice to not have to do the dishes on boxing day or have a mental breakdown as your cauliflower cheese inexplicably sets on fire, but this year I think I’ll stick to politely chewing my overcooked turkey. It’s tradition, after all.