Oshogatsu: A Spirited New Year’s Celebration

大晦日(Ōmisoka)—New Year’s Eve

Of all the festivals in the Japanese calendar, New Year’s is by far the most important and elaborate. Traditionally, preparations for the New Year began in the middle of December with a thorough house cleaning (susubarai) from top to bottom. These and other preparations were made in anticipation of the all-important visit from Toshigami-sama, the ancestral deity of the New Year. If Toshigami-sama was pleased with the preparations a household had done for the New Year, it was believed that he would bestow good fortune, energy and spirit, on all the members of the household for the year ahead. On Ōmisoka (New Year’s Eve), people would stay up all night to greet this ancestral deity, who in some stories, much like Santa Claus, would go from house to house with a sack on his back to add a year to everyone’s life. That meant that in the old days in Japan, everyone turned one year older at the same time on New Year’s!*

The custom of placing decorations with pine branches outside the front of the door (kadomatsu) comes from the notion that the Shinto gods (kamisama) prefer to manifest in pine trees so these decorations were believed to entice the ancestral deity into people’s homes. Placing decorations made of rope and paper and often various auspicious symbols (shimenawa), over doorways was also meant to welcome Toshigami-sama into the house. And perhaps most importantly of all, the offering of two large round rice-cakes (kagami-mochi), placed one on top of the other, was meant to contain the spirit of Toshigami-sama, who was also considered to be a deity of the harvest. Rice cakes play such an important role in the New Year’s festivities that people would traditionally do a large-scale mochi-tsuki (rice-pounding to make mochi rice cakes) in preparation. In the days leading up to New Year’s, people would also make an assortment of special New Year’s foods (collectively called osechi-ryōri) that all have symbolic meaning to ensure good fortune for the year to come. Preparing this food in advance also allows families to relax without having to worry about cooking during the holiday itself.

At temples and shrines, cleansing and purification are the focus of New Year’s eve, when all around Japan temple bells are rung 108 times to cleanse the world of what, in Buddhist terms, are the 108 worldly desires and afflictions. As the old year crosses over into the new, people eat buckwheat noodles called toshikoshi-soba (literally, crossing-into-the-Year soba) to ensure that, like the long noodles, they will also have long life.

お正月(Oshōgatsu)—New Year’s Day

In honor of Toshigami-sama’s visit and to celebrate the harvest, people in Japan eat a special soup on New Year’s called ozōni, as well as osechi-ryōri, or auspicious foods prepared in advance. Each region of Japan has a different recipe for ozōni, depending on what they typically harvest in that area, but the one thing they all have in common is mochi, or rice cakes. These rice cakes were originally called toshidama (年魂—meaning, the spirit of Toshigami-sama), but today toshidama (年玉—meaning “year’s treasure”) refers to the much anticipated envelopes containing money that grownups give to children for New Year’s.

Decorations and festivities relating to Toshigami-sama continue for the duration of his visit, which was traditionally believed to last until January 7th (matsu no uchi). Also on January 7th, people celebrate the first sekku of the year (nanakusa no sekku) by eating a seven-herb rice gruel (nanakusa-gayu), which is meant to keep one healthy in the coming year. By January 7th, certain rituals have to be accomplished, like receiving New Year’s cards (nengajo, which would have been sent out in mid-December), making ones first visit to a shrine (hatsumōde), and congratulating all ones friends and neighbors on the successful start of a New Year with the greeting, “Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu” (literally, “Congratulations on the opening [of the New Year]”.) Every first (hatsu) of the New Year—the first dream (hatsu yume) and first sunrise (hatsu hi no de)—is celebrated and carefully noted. In schools, the first writing of the New Year (kakizome) is still treated as a special event, often involving competitions where children write their goals for the coming year in their best calligraphy.

After the 7th of January, the kagami-mochi rice cakes—where Toshigami-sama’s spirit is believed to reside during his visit—are smashed into little pieces for the whole family to eat. Each little piece is believed to retain the spirit of Toshigami-sama, and, by sharing the kagami-mochi with every member of the family, everyone receives the spirit of Toshigami-sama and the strength they will need to last them through the year ahead. A popular way to eat the kagami-mochi and mark the end of the New Year is to roast it and put it in a sweet red-bean soup called oshiruko.

Another important element of the transition into a New Year in Japan and other parts of Asia is the change from one animal in the Chinese zodiac to the next in the following order: mouse, bull, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, boar. Long after the switch to the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japanese continue to use the Chinese zodiac as an important organizing principle behind how they calculate, for example, their own or other people’s age and year of birth. New Year’s cards (nengajo) in Japan almost invariably are decorated with the zodiac animal for the New Year.

As outlined above, Oshōgatsu (New Year’s) is really a series of festivals wrapped into one, lasting in some regions of Japan until at least the 15th (or 20th) of January, which is called Little New Year’s (Ko-shōgatsu). This is the time when all the New Year’s decorations are ritually burned so that Toshigami-sama’s spirit can be welcomed in afresh the following year. -Tara McGowan, PhD. Literacy, Language and Education. Costen Children’s Library, Princeton University

* By the old reckoning (kazoe-doshi), babies were thought to be one year’s old at birth. Then they would turn two at the New Year’s, even if they were just recently born, and they would turn three by the next New Year’s. In other words, a child as young as one year’s old by modern reckoning, would have been considered to already be three!