Seasonal Calendar of December

In this 'Seasonal Calendar', I would like to introduce traditional Japanese seasonal events, which come down to Japanese's modern life for the time being.

This Season's Traditional Events

December has come around, and the end-of-the-year rush before New Year seems to be coming by. ( Though it's already halfway through the month since my update has been getting late. ) But before New Year, there comes one of the most important events to Japanese called O-misoka ( New Year's eve ). So this month I'd like to write about this O-misoka.

What's O-misoka?

O-misoka is a name for the last day of the year, which falls on Decenber 31st of the Gregorian calendar. It is said that the Japanese word O-misoka written in Kanji characters can be devided in three words, 'O' meaning 'great' or 'big', 'miso' meaning '30', and 'ka' meaning 'day'. The word 'misoka' with 'miso' and 'ka' combined together, means 'the 30th', and was used to express the last day of each month in the earlier days of Japanese history, when the lunisolar calendar was still put to use.

Since the lunisolar calendar corresponded to the phases of the moon, the day that contains a moment when the moon becomes new, was called Tsuitachi ( the word is still presently used to express the first day of the month in Japanese ), which is said to come from the the word Tsuki-tachi ( literally, beginning of month or moon ). Following the 15th which usually falls on a full moon by the lunisolar calendar, the moon grows thinner and thinner until finally there comes a night with no moon. A day containing such a moment was called Tsugomori ( literally, moon seclusion ), meaning that the moon is hidden away somewhere, and is nowhere to be seen.

This Tsugomori day was also expressed with the same Kanji character 'miso' used in the word 'misoka', so the last day of every month ( that was the 30th according to the lunisolar calendar ) was called either 'misoka' or 'tsugomori' in those days. Additionally, adding 'O' which meant 'great' or 'big' to this 'misoka' or 'tsugomori', it is said that people came to call the last day of each year, 'O-misoka' or 'O-tsugomori'.

To Japanese, O-misoka is an important day before the coming of New Year, and various traditional customs according to each region, are still practiced today. Custom of doing a general year-end cleaning both inside and outside of homes, or custom for temples to ring out the bells at midnight seems to be still seen nationwide, while custom to eat Toshi-koshi Soba ( year-crossing buckwheat noodle ) or custom to eat other year-crossing dishes, seems to be seen according to each families or region.

How a Typical O-misoka Today is Spent

Generally in homes, families finish their cleaning by the evening of O-misoka, while many workers spend their last day before the New Year's vacation, mostly cleaning in and around their desks or offices. To Japanese housewives, O-misoka has probaly been the most busiest day of the year, cleaning their houses and preparing decorations and feast for the New Year. Though lately many of them seem to take the easier way around, by ordering house cleaning services or by doing with ready-made dishes, instead of cooking the feast themselves.

TV programs also seem to go with this flow, and the special programs they broadcast during this season, often tends to be boring. I guess it's all for the sake of providing those show business people some New Year's vacation, but sometimes these programs could become boring as hell ( Oooops sorry, that's my personal opinion ), making many viewers run to rental video shops to rent DVDs that they've been saving up to see for this opportunity.

The Kou-haku Uta-gassen ( the Annual NHK Year-end Grand Song Festival ) is one of those special programs of O-misoka. Watching Kou-haku together, once used to be the major attractions of O-misoka night for every family in Japan, though it seems to be losing its popularity especially among younger generations, who tend to be more interested in K-1 or Pride Grand Prix matches, or tend to have absolutely no interest in TV programs at all. Now less families seem to follow this practice.

Well, this Kou-haku programs usually finishes by a quarter to midnight, ( you must be finshed with eating Toshi-koshi Soba by around this time ) and the Joya-no Kane ( literally, night avoiding bells ) starts ringing to tell that the New Year is right around the corner. There is a superstition that your hair would turn white, or that one's face would become wrinkled, when you go to sleep early on O-misoka night, so the tradition might have it that you should stay up the whole night till morning. Though I wonder how many people still follow this tradition these days ... .

O-souji ( the year-end cleaning )

One of the most common year-end customs throughout the nation, that are still practiced in modern Japanese lifestyle, must be said as the year-end cleaning known as O-souji ( literally, a big cleaning ). People do a general cleaning in and around their homes, offices and schools by O-misoka, so that they can start the coming year with a fresh mind in a clean condition.

This year-end cleaning actually, is said to have derived from an ancient ritual called O-harai ( literally, the great lustration ), which were annually held twice a year in the end of June and at the end of the year. Natsu-koshino-O-harai ( literally, the great summer-crossing lustration ) is thought to have been held, to drive away the impurities of the first six months of each year, while Toshi-koshino-O-harai ( literally, the great year-crossing lustration ) was done for the latter half of the year.

Ancient Japanese are thought to have held this ritual of O-harai, to lustrate and purify their sins and to drive away the evil spirit, as well as to invite in good spirits. I'm not perfectly sure, but there seems to be a custom of cleaning done when celebrating Tanabata in some parts of Japan. This may be what's left of the summer O-harai today. As for the winter O-harai, it still seems to be left as a tradition of the year-end cleaning.

Why O-misoka is So Important

Then why did only the winter O-harai come down to today, in Japanese' modern lifestyle? Now, this could be thought that it was because the early ancestors of Japanese, found great importance in O-misoka which was the very last day of the year.

Long ago, even before the lunisolar calendar was brought into this country from China, the daily lives of ancient Japanese were based on the sun and the moon. They believed that the growth and harvest of crops that later became food to make them live, depended on the strong energy of life which the sun possessed. They seemed to have an idea that when the day becomes short or when the sun goes down, the power of such energy becomes low.

According to this way of thinking, the darkness of the night after sunset must have been a terrible time, with the vital energy being so weak. However, even in the terror of such darkness, there was light. It was the moon. Ancient Japanese must have seen in the moon, the same kind of power as they saw in the sun, shining brightly in the darkness of night. So that's why they loved the full moon so much, as to practice a custom like Juugoya. They must have loved the full moon especially, since the moon was thought to be at the peak of its vital energy when it was a full moon.

Regarding these things, it could be said that the sun's power which the ancient Japanese believed to be a source of vital energy, became the weakest during winter season. In winter, the daytime when the sun shines bright in the sky would become shorter, while the terrifying darkness of the nighttime would grow longer. The weakest of sun's power was thought to come on the winter solstice ( around December 22nd of the Gregorian calendar ), when the daytime is said to become the shortest in the northern hemisphere.

But it was supposed to be alright even in the longest darkness of the year, as long as the moon was there and shining. However, the moon would grow thinner after the solstice until the night of Tsugomori ( literally, moon secluion ), when there were no moon to be seen. That means there would be absolutely no living energy coming from anywhere on the last night of the year, neither the sun nor the moon, resulting in a case that the time of least vital power was the night of O-misoka.

Ancient Japanese who must have sensed a sort of certain rhythm, in the change of daytime growing shorter or longer, or in the repeating phases of the moon, seemed to think that on this last day of the year when the vital energy level becomes the lowest, the sun and the moon once die to be reborn once again, in order to give out fresh and new energy of life.

During the night while the energy level was low, people are told to have stayed up all night. Maybe it was to escape from the terror of the darkness with neither the sun's or the moon's help, that they stayed up all night on O-misoka until the first morning light reached the ground on New Year's day, and they were given fresh new energy to live on. It could be said understandable why they tried so hard to drive away the evil and the bad spirits, by practicing the Toshi-koshino-O-harai ( literally, the great year-crossing lustration ). And you might also know by now, how O-misoka definitely was an important day to Japanese.

Toshi-koshi Soba ( Year-Crossing Soba )

Another famous custom for O-misoka besides O-souji ( the year-end cleaning ), is to eat Toshi-koshi Soba ( literally, year-crossing buckwheat noodle ). Usually they are eaten at night sometimes replacing dinner, but it has to be eaten before midnight. This Toshi-koshi Soba seems to be eaten mostly throughout the country today, though other food such as Udon ( Japanese wheat noodle ) or a special feast for New Year called Toshi-tori-ryouri ( literally, aging dishes ) are eaten instead of Toshi-koshi Soba, according to each family or region.

Originally, Soba was a popular fast food in the city of Edo ( now Tokyo ) in the days around the middle of Edo Period (1603-1868). Since Soba was a three-point food that was quick, cheap and tasted good, Edoites loved Soba and are told that they had them regularly on a usual basis, both for lunch and for dinner.

Well then, since when did they become a special menu for O-misoka? Were there any particular reasons why they had become an year-crossing dish? I'm afraid that I can not give you a simple answer to this, for many things are said about the reason for eating Toshi-koshi Soba, but here are the four most typical ones.

1. Because people wished to live a frugal but long life like Soba.
2. Because people thought that they could get rid of the year's pain and bad fortune, and not bring them over to the next year, by eating Soba that are long but easily cut.
3. Because people wanted to follow the example of buckwheat, that make a quick recovery under the sunlight, even after they've been slashed down by rain or storm.
4. Because people were so busy at year-ends that they didn't have enough time to cook meals themselves.

Probably, the most well-known is the first reason. I've been taught so from my parents too. But personally, I think the fourth reason seems to be the most persuasive.

In Edo Period (1603-1868), there was a certain system of payment called Kake-uri ( sale on credit ), to sell things under the promise that the buyer pays for whatever goods purchased afterwards. ( Pretty amazing that they already had payment systems on credit 400 years ago. ) It is told that it was the most common style of payment in those days, with sellers collecting money usually once at the end of the year. ( Some of the payments were to be made once in six months and they called it 'Bon-kure Kanjou', meaning 'payments made at O-bon seasons and year-ends'. )

Since Edoites mainly consisted of craftsmen and general townspeople, it is not hard to imagine that they had to run about the city all day, to get over this year-end settlement on the last day of the year, unlike Samurai families who had enough time and money for the year-end cleaning. Most Edoites are said to have scrambled to raise funds, with having no time to eat meals at all, until the temple bells started to ring out the coming of New Year. Soba must have been appreciated as fast food under such condition, and the case must have been that most Edoites ordered bowls of Soba, because they were too busy on this last day of the year, to cook rice and fix meals for themselves at home.

Another Story About Toshi-koshi Soba

There's also another interesting story about the derivation of eating Soba on O-misoka, that goldsmiths and craftsmen who made gold-reliefed lacquerware, gathered tiny pieces of gold from the chinks between the straws of Tatami ( straw mats that cover the floors of traditional Japanese rooms ) inside their working space, by making use of Soba.

On O-misoka, the craftsmen added some hot water to Soba to fix something like Soba paste, then mixed it with more hot water after spreading it out on the Tatami of their working space, to collect tiny pieces of gold that has deposited at the bottom of the water. They say that some even earned more than enough to pay for their year-end settlement and prepare for the New Year, by gathering pieces of gold that has flown in all directions about the Tatami of their work space.

Today, Soba still seems to be one of Japanese's most favorite dishes, and the custom of eating Toshi-koshi Soba has spread nation-wide. Though people living in Kansai area ( the west part of Japan ) especially in Shikoku, are said to prefer Udon ( Japanese wheat noodle ) to Soba. This may be related to the fact that Kagawa prefecture located in Shikoku, being famous for Sanuki Udon ( Japanese wheat noodle made in this region ) one of the local specialties of this area.

It is also said that they eat Udon rather than Soba for O-misoka wishing for good luck, since the word Udon contains the sound 'un' when written in Kanji characters, which corresponds to the sound of 'un', meaning 'luck' in Japanese. Additionally, some say that Udon would be better to eat than Soba on O-misoka, for Soba can bring you only frugal long life, while Udon being comparatively thicker than Soba, brings rich and long life.

Other Dishes of Year-Crossing

As for other year-crossing dishes, there seems to be homes that eat Toshi-tori-ryouri ( literally, aging dishes ) on O-misoka. In Japan, it was common to consider a new born baby as a one-year-old, and count one's ages by adding a year with the coming of each New Year. Such ways of thinking was generally practiced among Japanese people until the Second World War, but it has changed after the war and become the same as the western countries.

However, based on such traditional thoughts, the New Year was a birthday for the whole family, therefore it is said that people prepared and ate a celebrating feast called Toshi-tori-ryouri ( maybe that's why they call it 'aging dishes' ).

As for the reason why it was ate on O-misoka and not on the New Year's Day, it could be explained by the ancient Japanese way of thinking, that a day's ending comes with the sunset while the beginning of a new day comes with the moonrise. Based on this thought, ancient people must have considered that the year was over with the sunset of December 31st, and started to the celebrate the new year by eating Toshi-tori-ryouri on the night of O-misoka, when the moon was up in the sky.

Incidentally, in our neighbor country China, there seems to be a custom to eat Gyouza (jiao-zi, steam-baked meat pie ) for a year-crossing dish. It is said that from the Kanji characters, the name of the food expresses that it was a special time-crossing dish eaten between 11 to 1 o'clock midnight, when both the old day and the old year was taken over by the new. Moreover, Chinese people are said to wish for a fortune when they eat this year-crossing dish of Gyouza, since the shape of this food resembles that of an ancient Chinese coin with large denomination.

Other Customs of O-misoka

I've been thinking it over and over, if there were any traditional customs of O-misoka left besides O-souji and the year-crossing dishes, but all I could think up of was Joya-no Kane ( literally, night avoiding bells ) and Nenga-jou ( literally, New Year celebration cards ). So I think I would write a little about these two customs.

Joya-no Kane ( Night Avoiding Bells )

Joya is another name for O-misoka which is the last day of the year. Around midnight of O-misoka, temples ring out their bells to tell the world that a new year has come. Usually the bells are rung 108 times, based on the Buddhist idea that man has 108 earthly desires, though the number of times can slightly differ according to each temples.

As said before, O-misoka night must have been the most terrifying time of year to ancient Japanese, in the sense that vital energy level became the lowest. Perhaps that was why people feared the darkness so much, trying so hard to drive away the evil. And although this custom of Joya-no Kane was probably later attached to such ancient Japanese thoughts of O-misoka, since it has a Buddhist background which are not seen in Japanese history before fifth century, it could be thought that this custom also must have been practiced in the belief that it had some kind of lustrating effect. So that's why they call it Joya ( literally, avoiding the night ) after all ... .

Nenga-jou ( New Year Celebration Cards )

Sending greeting cards for New Year is generally regarded as a custom of New Year, but in the sense that they are usually prepared and posted by the end of the preceding year, I think it can also be accepted as an year-end custom. These greeting cards called Nenga-jou ( literally, New Year celebration cards ) are something like Christmas cards in the western countries, and the custom of sending them are also seen nation-wide, just like the O-souji or the Toshi-koshi Soba. .

It is not exactly known when this custom had started, but records have it that a similar custom was already seen in Edo Period (1603-1868). Though in those days it is told that it was more common to pay a visit to whom one has accepted a favor from at the beginning of each year, usually with gifts to thank for their kindness during the previous year, and to say the greetings for the coming one. On the other hand, noble people are said to have sent letters of greetings or gifts of thanks to such person, who were at distance where they couldn't actually go to see them.

As the Japanese service for post cards began in 1874, the custom of visiting people at year-beginnings were replaced by New Year's cards. With the help of New Year's postal service starting from 1907, and the distribution of New Year's cards with lottery numbers beginning from 1949, the custom of sending New Year's cards spread all over the country. Relying on these postal service, Nenga-jou ( New Year's cards ) posted between December 15th to December 25th, is supposed to reach the addressed person on New Year's Day.

Today, many Japanese still practice this custom of Nenga-jou, though according to the Japan Post the sales of New Year's cards, have been decreasing since 1999 due to the popularity of E-mail. So a lot of 'em perhaps may be thinking it bothersome ... . But I think the custom of sending greetings and thanking people at least once a year, should be cherished and inherited to the next generation, apart from how they are sent. Now if you'll excuse me folks, I'd like to go finish up my cards and drop it in the mail box.

Last Modified Dec.29th, 2006

Site of Reference

Omisoka - Wikipedia ( Japanese )

http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%A4%A7%E6%99%A6%E6%97%A5

Omisoka - Wikipedia ( English )

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omisoka

Susanowo to Nigihayahi no Nihonn-gaku ( Japanese )

blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50056670.html http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50056668.html http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50056672.html

TOBULAND ( Japanese )

http://www.tobuland.com/ contents/ikebukuro/0412/index.html

Toshi-koshi Soba ( Japanese )

http://www.echizenya.co.jp/mini/colum/tosikosi.htm

Toshi-koshi Soba ka Toshi-tori-uo ka ( Japanese )

http://oohara.mt.tama.hosei.ac.jp/nk/foodandme20-tate.html

melma ( Japanese )

http://www.melma.com/backnumber_35122_535063/

Nihon to Chugoku no Toshi-koshi-ryouri ( Japanese )

http://72.14.235.104/search?q=cache:sQ7gqPyuzooJ:www.cs. reitaku-u.ac.jp/sm/todazemi/pages/pdf/taisyou/tai22.pdf+ %E5%B9%B4%E8%B6%8A%E3%81%97%E8%95%8E%E9%BA% A6%E3%80%80%E3%81%AA%E3%81%9C%E3%80%80%E9%A3% 9F%E3%81%B9%E3%82%8B%E3%80%80%E9%87%91%E3%80% 80%E8%81%B7%E4%BA%BA&hl=ja&gl=jp&ct=clnk&cd=2&ie= UTF-8&inlang=ja an HTML version of http://www.cs.reitaku-u.ac.jp/sm/ todazemi/pages/pdf/taisyou/tai22.pdf

Nihon no Bunka Iroha Jiten ( Japanese )

http://iroha-japan.net/iroha/B06_custom/06_nengajo.html