New Year’s is A Lot Like Western Christmas
In Japan, New Year’s is one of the most important holidays of the year, and it couldn’t be more different from the typical Western champagne-popping New Year’s celebration: People return to their hometowns, and families come together for a special meal, send greeting cards, and pray for health and happiness – more like a traditional Western Christmas.
Christmas, on the other hand, is not a national holiday in Japan. With Christians making up only 2% of Japan’s population, Christmas is celebrated as a secular – almost novelty – holiday. Shops across the country capitalize on the fad, setting up elaborate light displays and Christmas trees.
On the surface, all the holiday songs and decorations make it feel a lot like the Christmas season in Canada; however, Christmas doesn’t really enter people’s homes the way it does in the West. There are no presents piled under family Christmas trees, turkey dinners on Christmas Day, or children leaving cookies out for Santa Claus. Also, Japanese friends and family typically celebrate and exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is considered to be a very romantic date night for couples, a lot like Valentine’s Day.
Everyone Eats Soba Noodles on New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve, Japanese families traditionally eat a special kind of soba (buckwheat noodle) dish, called toshikoshi soba. The word “toshikoshi” describes the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new one, while the long soba noodles symbolize longevity in the year to come. Soba noodles can usually be eaten hot or cold, but on New Year’s, they’re typically eaten in a warm broth. The meal usually happens late on New Year’s Eve, as families wait for the arrival of the New Year.
Christmas Cake is Totally Different
When I was a kid, Christmas cake was a dark brown lump that sat mostly untouched, paling in comparison to all the other delicious Christmas treats. In Japan, however, cake is a huge part of the Christmas Eve tradition. Instead of a fruit-filled loaf, Japan’s version is a vanilla sponge cake topped with icing or whipped cream. It looks a lot like a birthday cake, except it’s usually decorated with little Santa Clauses or holiday greetings.
Mochi “Flowers” are Decorations
A few days ago, one of our students brought us a bouquet of branches decorated with pieces of white and pink mochi, which is a chewy rice cake.
The result looked a lot like small blossoms flowering on the branches. It turns out that these mochinbana are a popular New Year’s decoration in Japan. Flowers don’t naturally grow in the cold, snowy regions during the winter, so mochibana were made as substitute, bringing a little of spring’s prettiness to homes during the sometimes dreary Japanese winter.
Parties are About Forgetting
In place of the slightly-forced office Christmas parties I remember from Canada, Japanese businesses hold bonenkai, which means “forget the year party”. Every Japanese company holds at least one bonenkai for their employees in December. Much like Western Christmas parties, it’s a time when co-workers can relax their usual formalities, forget their problems, and hope for success in the next year – like most parties in Japan, this involves a lot of heavy drinking. Parties often take place in izakaya, and ours involved being treated to a nomihodai, which is a popular all-you-can-drink deal offered by many Japanese bars .
What are some interesting holiday traditions you’ve witnessed around the world?