Friday, January 04, 2013

New Year's Eve

This is the first time I celebrated the New Year with Japanese customs. In the U.S. the only consistent New Year’s celebrations I participated in was watching the ball drop on television (an hour early) and cocktail wieners from a slow cooker that almost made me go off them the first time I learned the recipe. (I didn’t, though, and have duly made them since then, except when I spend the new year in places like Japan, where grape jelly can’t be had for love or money).

In Japan, the traditions are age-old. The food is all symbolic. Each door and home altar are decorated with symbols of good luck, welcome, and prosperity. We do not have the same traditions. Sure, some families in the United States eat beans or something for good luck, but that isn’t an “American” tradition It is either a family tradition brought from somewhere else, or a regional tradition popular in a small area.

But what is consistent across the country? A ball dropped in New York City? A toast with sparking wine/juice? A kiss at midnight? The permission for kids to drink caffeine later than Mom ever allows on a school night?

I think the only thing that we all have in common is the desire to stay awake until midnight, and then go to sleep.

Not so in Japan.

We begin with prayers at the home altar. I do not have room to cover Shintoism here, but that will come another time.

Dinner is “O-Sechi Ryori” (New Year’s Dishes). The food traditionally is long-lived food: Sweet, salty, pickled, preserved .... ways that keep food fresh for several days; this custom dates from before refrigerators. Today, I noticed several stores, restaurants, and, of course, convenience stores open on New Year’s Day. However, traditionally, all stores were shut for 3-4 days. Also, the holiday was a time of relaxation and celebration. O-Sechi Ryori allowed the women - the cooks - the same time off.

Today’s annual popular entertainment began in 1951: Kohaku Uta Gassen, or “Red and White Song Battle”. Two teams comprised of the most popular singers in Japan sing for the title of winner. The red team consists of female singers, the white team is the male team. This year’s big winners: the white team.

Over the years, the contest seems to have morphed from an elite honour of singing with the best of the best in a two hour show into a five hour extravaganza showcasing those singers who have sold a certain number of albums. Nevertheless, the consensus seems to be that it is still an honour to compete on the show; it is still by invitation only.

It is over-the-top in terms of costumes, set design, and the sheer number of participants. That being said, I found it rather entertaining.

Before midnight, the bell of local temple rings 108 times in order to symbolise and cleanse people of the 108 sins in Buddhism. As we sat eating our soba, we listened to the ringing coming from the temple next door. Our soba-eating also had to be finished by midnight. The long noodles symbolising both a break from the old year and the prayer for a prosperous new one.

Photo courtesy of Muza-Chan
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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