Christmas may be small in Japan, but New Year’s is really big. In fact, it’s HUGE. On Friday, my office closed for the holidays and won’t re-open till January 7th. All over Japan, people are getting ready for a new year and a new beginning. Bonenkai parties (forget-the-old-year parties) have been going on for several weeks now as people repeatedly “wring out” their worries and grievances from the old year while sharing a bottle of sake and assortments of grilled food with their co-workers, friends and neighbors at a seemingly endless parade of parties and gatherings that have spanned the last two weeks.
But now as we head to these final few days, preparations are becoming more serious with lot and lots of cleaning and tossing out anythng that’s worn out or broken, since the New Year should be greeted with freshness and cleanliness. Doorways and entrances receive particular attention and after a good sweeping, are decorated with woven rice straw, bits of greens and tangerines or dried persimmons, like the decorations shown at the shop in the picture above. The rice straw expresses appreciation for the past year’s good harvest (prosperity), green, of course, is a universal symbol of life; and the fruits, both being orange, symbolize gold or good fortune in the year to come. And tiny pine saplings with their roots still attached symbolize the continuing cycle of life and are placed on either side of the entrance gate as a welcome to blessings in the new year.
And indoors there are wonderful ikebana. My flower class this weekend focused on holiday decorations. Over steaming cups of green tea, my sensei and fellow students explained the symbolisms involved in the various plant choices.
So many of the elements seem so similar to western Christmas decorations, which of course, were borrowed centuries ago from winter solstice celebrations in northern Europe. There is a plant with red berries and green leaves similar to holly but different, the leaves are softer and less pointed. Called senryo, the name means “thousand treasures” and is yet another expression of the wish for prosperity. The chrysanthemums are white for purity. Pine branches symbolize the continuation of life in the midst of winter and it is an ancient Shinto belief that God comes down at midnight on New Year’s Eve to touch the tallest tips of pine trees. Thus, the pine branch that forms the tallest element in a New Year’s arrangement is considered an invitation to God to enter our homes in the New Year. Is that why we in the west put an angel or the Star of Bethlehem on the tops of our Christmas trees? There is so much self-reflection that comes with exploring the customs of others.