Happy New Year. I wish you have a great new year!
Today, I would like to explain Japanese New Year’s traditions.
Shogatsu (New Year)
On New Year’s Day, we welcome, host festivities for, and send off Toshigamisama deity who comes down to each family from a mountain top to protect and pray for the family for the whole year. Toshigamisama is not a single deity, instead it encompasses multiple deities such as “visiting deity”, “grain deity”, “ancestral deity”, and “virtuous deity.” New Year’s decorations, kagami biraki, ozoni, a visit to a shrine, otoshidama, etc. all related to Toshigamisama.
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (Happy New Year)
We greet friends, acquaintances, co-workers, customers, etc. with Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. This greeting has a unique origin with multiple word playing or rhyming components. In today’s Japan with the Western solar calendar, risshun (the beginning of spring) comes at the beginning of February. However, in the lunar calendar which the Japanese used before the Meiji era, risshun took place between the second half of December and the first half of January. Therefore, New Year was not only the beginning of the year but also the start of the spring. People celebrated the birth of new life in the spring by saying “medetai” which rhymes as “buds coming out.”
By the same token, Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu was not just a celebratory greeting to deity but also expressed the birth of life. We exchange this greeting to rejoice these elements of the season. To go a step further, it includes the birth of life (plants) , deity, and human relationships which makes up Japanese cultural trinity.
New Year’s Cards
People used to visit one another at New Year’s and sent cards when they could not do so.
This exchange of letters became the custom of sending out cards.
Toshigamisama uses this decoration as a visiting guide to homes. It is placed by a gate in front of the front door. Since ancient times, pine has been regarded as a tree where deities dwelled. Single pine trees used to be planted in gardens, but people gbegun placing both male and female trees side by side. Over time, people also added bamboo and plum which are considered to bring good luck.
Many people go to see the first sunrise on New Year’s Day. They worshiped first sunrise to pray for good harvest and happiness for the year.
Kagami-mochi is an offering and considered a yorishiro (a place for spirits of deities temporarily stays). This custom is derived from tooth toughening ceremonies where people eat hard mochi. Kagami is a round mirror used in Shinto ceremonies, and its round shape represents soul. Round mochi of different sizes indicates sun and moon, light and darkness. This display also indicates adding years (living long) harmoniously.
People drink this medicinal sake to pray for health and to ward off evil spirits. Otoso literally means slaughtering evil and reviving soul.
In Chinese characters, it’s written as seasonal dishes. People ate osechi ryori on New Year’s and other holidays. When this type of food became popular among common people, people started enjoying osechi ryori only on New Year’s Day, the most important holiday among all.
This tradition began when a patriarch gave his family mochidama. People believed that the soul of toshigamisama resided in mochidama. It was also called otoshi-tama or otoshidama.
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