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Japan Update wishes all Happy Holidays

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-12-23

Santa Claus is coming to town in just a few short hours, New Yearís is just around the corner, and the Lunar New year isnít far behind, either.

Okinawa, an island which celebrates virtually everyoneís holidays including both the traditional and Lunar New Year, has a lot happening in the days ahead. Japan Update wishes all its readers a very happy holiday season, and best wishes for the new year. And as we all celebrate, we take a moment to appreciate what the holidays are all about.

Customs and traditions vary around the world, but from Okinawa and Japan to Korea and China, to the continents of Europe, Africa, America, South America and Australia, December is a very special time. Itís a time for gift-giving, paying homage to ancestors, dressing up and decorating, and good old fashioned fun. Christmas is celebrated around the world, even by those with differing religious beliefs, as Christians honor the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Santa Claus is a part of Christmas, a tradition originally with jolly olí St. Nick in Scandinavia, where he made home visits to fill childrenís stockings and deliver gifts.

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, has already concluded, having run earlier in the month. Hanukkah is celebrated to mark the survival of Judaism 23 centuries ago. Jews light the menorah, a special candleholder, to pay homage to a miracle when one dayís oil burned for eight days in the temple.

Kwanzaa, an American-created secular holiday, began in 1966. The African-American holiday runs seven days, from December 26th through January 1st. Instituted by a university professor in the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Kwanzaa was intended to bring the community together. Christmas is a national holiday, but not in mainland China or Japan. In all, though, the popularity of the holiday, with gift giving and colorful lights, make Christmas a near worldwide celebration. Even in Islamic and Hindu countries, the secular side of Christmas is widely celebrated. The Philippines boasts the worldís longest Christmas season, starting with a handful of activities in September, then pickup up steam with the nine-day dawn Masses that began December 16th.

In Central and Eastern Europe, Christmas Eve takes precedence. December 24th is often a fasting day, with gift-giving in the evening. From the Czech Republic and Slovakia to Hungary and Poland, evening feasts cap each day.

Here in Okinawa, itís a little of everything; colorful lights, special religious services, music and laughter everywhere. Christmas Fantasy is going on at Okinawa Zoo Park, the lights are burning at the Itoman Illumination at Peace Prayer Park, Southeast Botanical Gardens is glowing with lights, and hotels, resorts and businesses are turning up the lights, too.

There are dozens of events taking place daily across the island, and a full listing is contained in www.japanupdate.com ďEvents ScheduleĒ with highlights in the Japan Update Events This Week column. From colorful lights to scrumptious dinners, itís a time to relax and celebrate.

The Seamenís Club Naha is hosting a Christmas Day Buffet from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations for the buffet, which includes everything from Steamship Round to Cajun Turkey to Sugarcane Ham and all the fixings, are recommended. The cost is $21.95 for adults and $9.95 for kids 4-11. The Seamenís Club is located next to Naha Military Port, on the road to Naha International Airport. Military clubs, as well as numerous hotels and restaurants across the island, are also featuring holiday dinner specials.

Lunar New Year, which in 2011 takes place February 3rd, ushers in the Year of the Rabbit. Those born in the year of the rabbit are the luckiest among "the twelve animals." The rabbit is a symbol for mercy, elegance, amiability and worship of beauty. People born in this year are kind, gently speaking, peaceful, quiet and loving persons. They like to live easy lives. They are reserved persons, love arts and have a strong sense of justice. Whatever they do, they will start well and end well. This feature can make them learned scholars. They are also well adapted to work in government departments, and to be active on the political stage.

People born in the year of the rabbit give others an impression of being frail-looking because of their gentle appearance. But, in fact, they are strong minded and have strong wills. They pursue their ideals all their lives in a precise and orderly way. It is also easy for people to get the impression that people born in the year of the rabbit will never do harm to other people.

First, though, traditional New Year celebrations are upon us, with customs and traditions from around the world being practiced here in Okinawa. New Year is the oldest of all holidays celebrated, first begun about 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylon. Starting about 2,000 BC, the Babylonians celebrated their new year on March 23rd, an interesting choice since they had no written calendars. At any rate, Babylonians werenít content with only a New Yearís Eve; they celebrated 11 days, with each having a special theme. The Roman Empire kept the March date for centuries, but the emperorsí constant tinkering with calendars finally led the Roman Senate, in 153 BC, to declare January 1st to be the official beginning of each year.

That baby we see wrapped in diapers and holding the New Yearís Banner? Thatís a gift to America from the Germans, who used the image of a baby as the symbol of the new year since the early 14th century. The tradition if using the baby itself began in Greece about 2,700 years ago as they honored, Dionysus, their god of wine, by parading a baby about.

Visits to the temples are traditional here in Okinawa. Naminoue Shrine will attract tens of thousands beginning New Yearís Eve, as will Futenma and Onoyama shrines. Shortly before midnight, listen for the sounds of bells ringing at temples and shrines. The Japanese tradition, Joya no Kane, the ringing of the bells 108 times, usher in the new year while warding off evil spirits.

New Yearís Eve is a time for noodles, too. Toshikoshi soba noodles are believed to bring long and happy lives, so are extremely popular in restaurants around the island. The festivities continue New Yearís Day with Ganjijitsu, a time for more eating and drinking and sharing with families. Shogatsu is a serious family time, and relatives travel great distances to share even a few hours with each other.

Look for O-Zoni, a breakfast fare served New Yearís Day through the 3rd. O-Zoni is a mix of rice cakes in a vegetable soup, with the soup stocks varying from family to family. Thereís also the traditional New Yearís dish, O-Sechi, something hard to describe since each family modifies the sweet boiled black beans recipe to meet its needs.

A most visible sign of the New Year is the Kadomatsu, the pine decorations. Youíll find the Kadomatsu at entrances to homes, offices and restaurants, welcoming the God and the New Year. Look closely at the decorations and note the three bamboo shoots in the center, each with cut tips. Pine trees are part of the honors, too, because the local traditions trace back that pine trees remind everyone to be waiting for God, and that even in the midst of winter, all is fresh and bright.

Peace Memorial Park, the site of the last fighting during the Battle of Okinawa at Mabuni in 1945, forms the backdrop for the Itoman City Peaceful Illumination. Entry fee is •200 for adults and youth 15 and older. An estimated 120,000 are expected to trek south to absorb the splendor of more than 1.3 million lights in the display. There will also be fireworks on New Yearís Eve.

Even as the Itoman Peaceful Illumination is under way, plans are being finalized for the 32nd Mabuni Fire & Bell Observance New Yearís Eve into New Yearís Day. The ceremonial festival takes place at Okinawa Peace Memorial Hall, which also stands in Mabuni, with prayers being offered to the 230,000 who died during the Battle of Okinawa. Just before the new year arrives, moments before the stroke of midnight, the flame of prayer will descend from the 45-meter-high bell tower to light participantsí torches as they welcome in the new year. As a choir sings, the Bell of Peace is rung as participants light the large flame holder with their torches. Itís a solemn, chilling festival thatís not to be missed.

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