What can be more traditional than watching Donald Duck on Christmas? In Sweden, not much:
Three years ago, I went to Sweden with my then-girlfriend (now-wife), to meet her family and celebrate my first Christmas. As an only partially lapsed Jew, I was not well-versed in Christmas traditions, and I was completely ignorant of Swedish customs and culture. So I was prepared for surprises. I was not prepared for this: Every year on Dec. 24 at 3 p.m., half of Sweden sits down in front of the television for a family viewing of the 1958 Walt Disney PresentsChristmas special, “From All of Us to All of You.” Or as it is known in Sverige, Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul: “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Kalle Anka, for short, has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time on Sweden’s main public-television channel, TV1, on Christmas Eve (when Swedes traditionally celebrate the holiday) since 1959. The show consists of Jiminy Cricket presenting about a dozen Disney cartoons from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, only a couple of which have anything to do with Christmas. There are “Silly Symphonies” shorts and clips from films like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Jungle Book.The special is pretty much the same every year, except for the live introduction by a host (who plays the role of Walt Disney from the original Walt Disney Presents series) and the annual addition of one new snippet from the latest Disney-produced movie, which TV1’s parent network, SVT, is contractually obligated by Disney to air.
Watching Kalle Anka for the first time, I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters. My soon-to-be father-in-law, a burly man built like a Scandinavian spruce, laughed at jokes he had obviously heard scores of times before. Nobody blinked at the antiquated animation, the cheesiness of the stories, or even the good-old-fashioned ’30s-era Disney-style racism. (In the 1932 “Silly Symphonies” short “Santa’s Workshop,” there is a scene involving a black doll who yells “Mammy” at the sight of Santa Claus then moons the screen. It was eventually censored from the American version of the cartoon but remains in Kalle Anka.)
The show’s cultural significance cannot be overstated.* You do not tape or DVR Kalle Ankafor later viewing. You do not eat or prepare dinner while watching Kalle Anka. Age does not matter—every member of the family is expected to sit quietly together and watch a program that generations of Swedes have been watching for 50 years. Most families plan their entire Christmas around Kalle Anka, from the Smörgåsbord at lunch to the post-Kallevisit from Jultomten. “At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, you can’t to do anything else, because Sweden is closed,” Lena Kättström Höök, a curator at the Nordic Museum who manages the “Traditions” exhibit, told me. “So even if you don’t want to watch it yourself, you can’t call anyone else or do anything else, because no one will do it with you.”
In Japan, they celebrate with the Kentucky Colonel:
It’s Christmas Eve in Japan. Little boys and girls pull on their coats, the twinkle of anticipation in their eyes. Keeping the tradition alive, they will trek with their families to feast at … the popular American fast food chain KFC.
Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan—only one percent of the Japanese population is estimated to be Christian—yet a bucket of “Christmas Chicken” (the next best thing to turkey—a meat you can’t find anywhere in Japan) is the go-to meal on the big day. And it’s all thanks to the insanely successful “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign in 1974.
When a group of foreigners couldn’t find turkey on Christmas day and opted for fried chicken instead, the company saw this as a prime commercial opportunity and launched its first Christmas meal that year: Chicken and wine for
8342,920 yen($10)—pretty pricey for the mid-seventies. Today the christmas chicken dinner (which now boasts cake and champagne) goes for about 3,336 yen ($40).
And the people come in droves. Many order their boxes of ”finger lickin’” holiday cheer months in advance to avoid the lines—some as long as two hours.
The first KFC Japan opened in Nagoya in 1970 and quickly gained popularity. (There are now over 15,000 KFC outlets in 105 countries and territories around the world.) That same year, at the World Exposition in Osaka, KFC and other American fast food chains like McDonald’s were met with great market testing results and helped jump start the westernized “fast food” movement in Japan. After the big commercial push in ’74, the catchphrase “Christmas=Kentucky” paired with plenty of commercials on TV caught on.