It took me more than 30 years to actually like the holidays. I used to dread the long stretches of unstructured time and the unstated expectation to feel festive. It didn’t help that in Manila where I grew up, the default mode of celebration is noisy, dirty, chaotic, and sometimes dangerous (i.e. home karaoke parties, roads jammed with everyone going to everyone else’s parties, explosives, tire-burning, gun-firing). I found myself wishing for the resumption of normal schedule to get on with school and work.
Unlike the many overseas Filipinos who wish to be home for the holidays, I relish not having to endure Christmas songs after the 25th, or waking up to blackened nostrils on New Year’s Day (no thanks to thousands of people setting off their own personal fireworks for their own personal countdown). I love the peaceful and quiet way the holidays are celebrated here. There are three rituals, two very Japanese and one just our crazy family’s, that I have come to love starting the year with:
Oosouji 大掃除, The big cleaning
I had no plans to clean. But I was curious. There was an exhaust fan above the stove that was coated in dark brown grime. It’s been that way since we moved in four and a half years ago. It’s one of those things that I left as, of course exhaust fans are greasy. Why clean it when it’s going to get greasy again because surely, we’re going to have to eat and cook sometime right? But I was curious. With a piece of cloth soaked with baking soda water, I took a swipe. The cloth lifted a thick layer of grime, revealing a smooth off-white layer. Wow, so that’s what it really looks like. I got so excited I cleaned the fan still attached to the wall until I got to the pocket that collected grease and accidentally splattered black muck all over myself and the kitchen floor. So I got smart and took down everything to the sink.
Seeing at least 4 and a half layers of guck lift off (I say ‘at least’ because I doubt the people who lived in the house before us ever cleaned it) was surprisingly therapeutic. Something about the very physical act of cleaning parallels the internal process of washing away the past and old ways of thinking. Clean slates and fresh starts are a real possibility. How thrilling.
With a squeaky clean exhaust fan in place, I was energized. Yes, we will need to cook and deep fry and the exhaust fan will collect oil again. But for now, it is clean and so is the state of my mind.
The annual burning of regrets
My husband has amassed piles of odd sized pieces of wood from pallets and large stiff cardboard leftover from assorted projects around the house, making it difficult to navigate the already narrow passages of the perimeter of our house. “How about doing a bonfire by the river?” He got the kids excited about the big burning event — which the kids called bombfire — using it as a teaching moment about the elements of a fire (heat, fuel, and oxygen) and fire safety. How lucky to live so close to the river where we can do this.
“How about writing down our regrets this year and burning it later?” he suggested. I couldn’t think of regrets exactly, so on my sheet of paper, I wrote down the names of people who have annoyed me (or more accurately, people whom I have allowed to annoy me and take up my time and energy), disappointments, and sources of stress. The burning of negative stuff was not new to me, having done it several times in the past. But I have learned that any experience can feel new if I fully immerse myself in it. Our five year old son who couldn’t write yet decided to burn his old, formerly white, now grey underwear. Why not.
We got to the rocky riverbed and set up our bombfire and pails of water, thus confusing our five year old who, when asked the elements of the fire, answers, “Water! We need water for fire!” The blaze was powerful, and I kept my distance in deference. Before we tossed our cardboard filled with our regrets (plus one underwear), we walked around the fire saying goodbye to the year. Within seconds, the blaze ate the cardboard. How easy it is to stoke a fire. With the cardboard reduced to ashes, I felt lighter. I don’t think there’s any juju to what we did, only the magic of letting go.
Hatsu hinode 初日の出 The first sunrise
Two years ago, huddled together with about a hundred other people at the top of Mt. Hiwada, it was my first time to wait for the first rays of the sun to break through the horizon on the first day of the year. Suddenly, “There it is! Right there!” and because this is the digital age, about 50 phones popped up while the others clasped the hands together and bowed their heads in prayer. I was perfectly aware of what was going around me but at the same time, I was choking back tears, overwhelmed with emotion of what this simple sacred moment signified — the gift of another day, another year, hope and this beautiful life.
The Japanese believe that the god Toshigami who brings good luck appears along with the first surise of the year. I do not believe in gods or good luck. I do believe that good things come to those who wake up early enough in the morning, something that I — who loved sleeping in — learned the past year.
Aside from the first sunrise, we have made it a ritual to have a picnic lunch on December 31st at a spot where the view is straight out of a watercolor of misty mountains. If the weather’s clear, we watch the last sunset too. And the first full moonrise of the year and every month thereafter –rituals made easy because we live in the countryside sandwiched between mountain and river and all beautiful nature in between. And each time we do, we still marvel at how lucky we are, how rich we are to be able to enjoy these things. Maybe wishing for wealth and other things we don’t have is not as useful as wishing for the ability to see what we have right before us. Maybe then, we will realize we already have our heart’s desires.