Monday, January 7, 2013

Holiday double whammy

Tokyo celebrates Christmas as frenetically as New York. The stores, hung with wreaths and with a winkling pine tree in every lobby, are jammed with people searching for gifts for the kids. The sales staff is decked out with red caps trimmed with white fur and with a white fluffy ball on the top. Bearded Santas roam the aisles ho ho ho. There are spectacular lighting displays in all stores confident their Christmas sales will pay for it all.

After dinner on Christmas day, most families will put on the table an elaborate Christmas cake. Oh! Ah!

Then a few days later comes Oshogatsu, a three-day celebration of the dawn of the New Year, requiring an exchange of New Year's card to keep the Post Office busy and a meal geared to taking three days to eat. Children are ritually given envelopes containing money.

When Christmas, then Shogatsu is finally over, there is a general collapse and people are happy to resume the quiet, regulated regime of work.

Western holidays began appearing on Japanese calendars when Japanese businessmen went abroad and saw that special occasions were recognized by everyone at certain times of the year. These days, everyone's birthday is recognized whereas before only the Emperor's Birthday was a special day. On Valentine's Day, men give chocolates to their women friends. On Halloween, Japanese kids dress up as witches and skeletons. Predictably, some pubs celebrate St. Patrick's Day. 

So now, there are two sets of holidays in Japan - Western holidays and 
traditional Japanese holidays such as seijin no hi (when those who have just turned 20 dress in kimono and go for a walk around town), setsubun (to mark the beginning of Spring on February 3), obon (a festival to commemorate members of the family who have died), keiro no hi (respect for the aged day), and bunka no hi (Culture Day, when we give thanks for having the arts to play with).

And so it is that the Japanese calendar is sprinkled with more holidays than any other country.

- Natasha Nakamura

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