Serving up Christmas
In a country where fried chicken takes center stage on Christmas Eve, Members explain how the Club helps them recreate long-cherished Christmas traditions.
If you wanna be happy in a million ways,” goes the Perry Como classic, “for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.”
It’s a familiar refrain (think “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Home for the Holidays” and “Please Come Home for Christmas”), but for Members who have built lives a world away from their birthplaces, home can be difficult to define.
While American Member Patrick Morris can take a day off on December 25, it’s not so easy for his wife and 9-year-old daughter, Sophia, to clear their schedules on what is a regular day in Japan. On Christmas morning, they still open presents, including one straight from Santa’s sleigh for Sophia.
Watching his daughter unwrap her gifts is special, but Morris can’t help but reminisce about his own childhood in the Midwest.
“To me, growing up, Christmas morning, you wake up and you’re with relatives and family,” Morris, 46, says. “You can’t really replicate that.”
If you remove the relatives, the tree, the fireplace, the Christmas cake and the made-for-TV movie marathons, is what you’re left with Christmas? Save for the festive illuminations and some plastic trees, Japan shares virtually none of the holiday traditions most Westerners associate with the season.
The most visible Japanese Christmas custom might be a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Following a marketing campaign in the mid-1970s that capitalized on a dearth of turkey, KFC became a symbol of holiday Americanness. Now, it’s considered good practice to reserve your Christmas bucket weeks in advance. In 2017, KFC grossed more than ¥6 billion ($53 million) over the holiday weekend.
It wouldn’t take much for Morris to order his own KFC dinner. But for someone who grew up among the customs of an authentic holiday, it wouldn’t be Christmas, and it wouldn’t be something he could share about himself with his family.
Instead, at the end of the school and work days, Morris brings his family to the Club for the Christmas Day dinner buffet and its classics any American would recognize—roasted turkey, gravy, homemade cranberry sauce and honey-baked ham—plus some international extras like yellowtail sushi and bigeye tuna sashimi.
The food isn’t the sole attraction, though. Every year, Morris invites Sophia’s friends and their families to join them. Amid the festive atmosphere, he’s created a Christmas tradition for her, too.
“She likes it because it’s an opportunity for her to show her Japanese friends, who normally she spends time with in a very Japanese setting, her dad’s side,” he says. “There’re a lot of mixed and Western kids running around, so it’s a very different atmosphere she’s playing with her friends in.”
Choosing to raise Sophia with an American-style Christmas has its own challenges, Morris explains. There was the Christmas Eve Sophia climbed out of bed, ostensibly for a glass of water, and almost spotted the gift from Santa that, fortunately, had been placed just out of sight. But when the Man in Red made his big entrance at Sophia’s first Christmas at the Club, “you could see her eyes widen,” Morris says.
As a longtime resident who keeps his idea of Christmas alive for his daughter, “home” for the holidays can mean whatever he chooses.
“The basis of all that is just being with family,” he says. “A lot of our friends become, for me, extended family. It might not be blood relatives, but for those very close friends, we try to give a little taste of the Western way of celebrating Christmas.”
More than a few Members embrace the seasonal spirit of giving.
Although Member Miho Neely and her American husband don’t visit the States for the holidays, they have established their own family traditions: Christmas Eve Mass at St Alban’s Church near Tokyo Tower, followed by the Club’s lunch buffet.
“This is the only place we can think of,” says Neely. “We get to see other families as well and we know a lot of people here.”
Neely always coordinates her reservation with other families, and they pull tables together for a group celebration. She enjoys bringing special guests when she can, too. Last year, Karin Nakano interned at the childhood cancer nonprofit where Neely works. Since Neely knew Nakano had lived in the US before, she invited her to join the family at the Club.
“It was nice to feel connected to both cultures and enjoy the holiday from both sides,” Nakano, a 19-year-old freshman at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, says of the get-together.
“We like the whole sort of atmosphere,” Neely says. “Coming here, meeting more people and bringing more people. Then we can really enjoy and relax.”
Some Christmases at the Club are more spirited than relaxing. Member Nozomi Terao holds an annual party in the New York Ballroom for the international summer camp she runs. Over the years, there have been dances, magic shows, fortune tellers and comedy skits. For the 200–plus families who attend every year, it doesn’t disappoint.
“If I were a kid and I went to a party like this every year,” says Thomas Levine, Terao’s stepson and regular camp counselor, “I would definitely look forward to it.”
Reconnecting with old friends is a highlight of the event. Levine remembers meeting Yuki, a camper he describes as “a wild child, running around, putting stickers on his face.” They hadn’t met in nearly a decade.
“He came to the Christmas party last year and he was completely changed,” says Levine, 32. “He’s Mr Serious now. It’s so gratifying.”
Terao may not throw the most traditional Christmas parties, but aiming for a facsimile of the holiday is hardly the point. Capturing the spirit of the festivities? That’s what’s worthwhile.
“It’s really special because it’s not just about [the summer camp] or Santa Claus,” Levine explains. “It’s about seeing people.”
This Christmas, there will be more than 20 people at Member Patrick Sheng’s house. Many are friends and family from Taiwan and Hong Kong, flying in for a week of skiing, sightseeing and a December 25 feast.
There will be two special guests: his daughter, Anna, a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his son, Max, a freshman at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.
“They’re quite picky,” says Sheng. “My daughter doesn’t eat meat, usually. She only eats turkey when she comes home [for Christmas]. And my boy? Man, this guy knows food.”
In a crowded Traders’ Bar, Sheng animatedly lists his Club-catered favorites: two 10-kilogram turkeys, a mountain of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and some roast beef with au jus. Extolling the moistness of the turkey meat, he laments the time he didn’t order enough mashed potatoes.
Quick with a handshake and a slap on the arm when he delivers a punchline, Sheng talks at length about the dishes he’s been ordering for years. He sounds like a father who knows what his kids like—and whose kids are coming home for Christmas.
“All of a sudden,” Sheng explains, “a couple of years ago, when my daughter was a freshman or sophomore [in high school], the kids really wanted the Christmas turkey. That’s when the tradition started.”
The “tradition” was inviting his extended family from all over the globe to his house for a Club-catered Christmas. The first year, he wasn’t sure how much food he’d need. His family devoured the small turkey and sides of mashed potatoes and gravy. “The portions were wrong,” he explains. “The next year, I doubled the size. Still didn’t work. The next year, I tripled the size. It kind of worked, but the next day, when [Anna and Max] were making the [leftover] sandwiches, they were, like, ‘We need more mashed potatoes.’”
Sheng lets out a laugh. “I tripled the number from three years ago,” he says.
A Buddhist, Sheng never experienced a Christmas dinner in the US. But the food is his celebration’s focal point. As early as October, Sheng and his wife, Yuko, start planning the menu.
“One year, I forgot to order pumpkin pie,” Sheng says with a grimace. “My kids crucified me. They were looking at me, checking under the [turkey] boxes. Now, I cross-check everything.”
This is Max’s first year at college. His first year living by himself. His first year coming home for the holidays. And this Christmas, his father will expand the extensive spread to include a boneless York ham.
“To have [Christmas] in your own home, it’s like a ceremonial event,” Sheng says. He pantomimes holding a serving platter up to a crowd, perhaps imagining his relatives making their way to Tokyo and Anna and Max packing their bags.
“Boom!” Sheng says and lifts the invisible lid. “Here’s the turkey, and the kids go, ‘Whoa!’”
Words: Owen Ziegler
Image: Junichi Miyazaki