An Oriental Holiday


An Oriental Holiday

Illustrated from new Japanese photographs
What Christmas is to the Westerners, New Year’s is to the Japanese, although congratulations and greetings are not merely confined to the first day of the New Year, but at any time between the first and fifteenth. This is the time of universal peace and good will in Japan; when the inhabitants of the little Empire prepare to start life anew, with all bad feelings done away with and fine promises and resolutions for the future. In fact, the first of January bears the significant title of Gan-san (the three beginnings), meaning the beginning of the year, the beginning of the month and the beginning of the day. One might be tempted to add to this “The beginning of a new life,” for so realistically and conscientiously do the Japanese try to observe the almost national rule of striving earnestly to make themselves better at this time that it becomes an almost literal belief with them that they have succeeded. That is a pretty truth, I think—that a good belief generally tends to make the good reality.


Somehow, though the sun may have shone just as brightly on the previous day, and indeed the whole year round, and all things in nature bear the same aspect, yet it all seems different. It is the spirit of the New Year. Then, too, the busy workers, who have been preparing nearly a month ahead for this season, have laid aside the bamboo duster and broom, and a general quiet and happiness seems to reign over the Land of Sunrise. The first of January is the only day in the year on which all stores are closed, as the merchants do not recognize the Sabbath or other holidays. This day is a universal holiday, and many, many happy families rise very early in the morning to worship the first rising sun of the New Year.


“Happy New Year”“Happy New Year,” is heard everywhere, and the shining, smiling faces of the little people beam with earnestness and light heartedness; the very birds seem to be trilling in a tender tone, and the exquisite wild plum blossom (the Nume) breathes its perfume and loveliness over all, while the soft strains of the beautiful national hymn might be heard from a thousand homes, mingled with the accompaniment of the koto1 and the samisen.2 On this day all the members of a family congratulate each other the first thing in the morning and then sit at tables, each one having a little one to themselves, the table being perhaps not over half a foot high. Spiced cake is then passed around, symbolic of the wish that each one may drink a cup of immortality, then soup follows, and they all wish the others ten thousand years of joy.

Cleaning the House

The streets, houses, and gardens are gaily decorated with pine and bamboo, for the Japanese venerate both of these, because they keep green through the entire winter, and are symbols of longevity. The Japanese begin to prepare for New Year’s about the middle of December. Even the very poorest people give their little houses a thorough re-cleaning, laying new mats of rice straw and cleaning every nook and corner with fresh bamboo dusters, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune. On the second of January the streets are brilliantly illuminated with lanterns, and hung with the national flag and streamers of bunting, and the shrill calls of processions of venders are heard everywhere.

The Holiday Spirit

Otakara! Otakara! Otakara!” “Treasure Ship! Treasure Ship! Treasure Ship!” There they come, walking slowly at the back of their richly laden carts, drawn by oxen decorated with flags and cloths of every color, and behind them and all along the way beside them follow a surging crowd of happy children and holiday seekers. Now some vender pauses a moment to exchange a word with a jinriki-man3 and the crowd pauses also. Once in a while some little bit of humanity, in the shape of a very small boy, gets mixed up in the crowd and loses his bearings. A little tear-stained, desolate face peers at you out of the crowd. Soon some one has lifted him high on their shoulders, crying aloud: “Who owns this august baby?” Then, perhaps, the kind-hearted treasure vender slips into his little hand some tawdry, bright toy and the little dirty, tearful, grimy face becomes suddenly restored to its wonted serenity and happiness, as he is restored to his parents. Ah! But the good will of the New Year’s has touched even the rough heart of the weariest peddler and vender.

Happy Anticipations

The little Japanese child looks forward to the New Year with as much eagerness as does the little American boy to Christmas. This same feeling of expectancy and joy at the prospect is very contagious in Japan, and almost as soon as the month of December sets in, the grown people as well as the children begin to talk about it, many of them even beginning preparations that early. Especially are the young girls interested in it, and often one comes across gay, laughing groups, some of them busy sewing or fashioning odd toys and presents, others planning what they propose to do or buy, and again others whispering together and trying to make their companions believe that they propose doing something very remarkable and mysterious at that time.

New Gowns

The young girls learn a new tune on the koto or samisen, and make themselves new gowns, generally of the prettiest and most extravagant shades and patterns. They are indefatigable workers at this time, these little women, sewing and embroidering from morning till night, and are as much interested in a new gown as the most stylish parisienne lady that ever stepped. In fact, when the New Year’s finally sets in, there is always some one who has broken down from overwork. Perhaps she is an older sister who has had to make not only her own but her sister’s gowns.

Meaning of New Year’s

Always before the New Year’s sets in, the parents gather little ones together and try to instill into them the meaning of the New Year’s, so children, large and small, try their little best to be unusually good, docile, and obedient during this season. Though they play happy games throughout the entire day, yet they will endeavor to be as gentle and obedient as possible. Looking at a group of Japanese children sometime during the New Year’s season, a Westerner is struck more than ever by the innate gentleness and refinement 13 of the people, which is shown even among the most boisterous of children. It is at this season, too, that the youngsters strive to show the best specimens of their penmanship, and try to outdo each other in obedience and goodness at this time.

Street Parades

In the days of the Tokugawas,4 the most imposing ceremonies were held, the streets being constantly filled with the parades of the various lords and nobles, but with the dawn of Western ideas, Japan retaining all her orientalness, gave up a great deal of what the reformists termed “useless expense and display.” Yet the beautiful parades of Old Japan were said to be as innocent as they were conducive of merriment and good feeling, absurd though some of them might have seemed to foreigners, just as all masquerades and carnivals might be said to be.

Making Calls

The custom prevails to this day of making hundreds of calls in one day. Jinrikishas are flying hither and thither from one end of the city to the other, and cards are dropped at the doors of friends, relatives and acquaintances, though the occupant of the jinrikisha will not alight save in rare instances. Social gatherings and banquets constitute the features of the entertainments indulged in by the “grown people” during this season.

Quiet Amusements

In spite of the general joy and happiness visible everywhere, one is struck by the quiet, unobtrusive way in which the Japanese take their pleasure. There is no noisy rioting, no boisterous games, no drunken revelers or screaming children. In fact, the sounds of merriment are so musical that one would miss the sibilant laughter and the happy chatter, which seems to accord with the beauty and sunshine everywhere. How lovable they are to each other at this season; not in the Western fashion truly, of smothering each other with kisses, but in a gentle, quiet way. Many a doorway is framed with three or four sweet little maids, their arms entwined about each other, watching the flying jinrikishas, the antics of some clown or juggler, the processions, or the younger children at their games. Sometimes quite big girls will join in these games and seem to enjoy them as much as the children.

Courtesies to Foreigners

A word about the foreigners in Japan at this season. It must not be thought for a moment that in the enjoyment of this happy time the Japanese forget the strangers on their soil. Any American who has visited Japan at this time would tell you of the pains taken to show them every courtesy and make them feel perfectly at home and welcome by all. The better class and wealthier Japanese often make a point of including the foreigners in their round of visits, and many a happy foreigner will bring back to his own country beautiful and rare gifts from generous and kindly disposed Japanese. But the most touching gifts they usually receive are those given them by their servants or coolies, who are very poor. They take great pride at this time in making odd, unexpected little gifts to their Americazan (American) or Egurisu (English) masters and mistresses, assuring them at the same time that “they are a thousand thanks to them until before they die,” because of the kindness and good treatment they have received in the past from their foreign friends. And they bestow their gifts without any thought of return.

An Incident

I know of one especial incident that struck me at the time I heard of it as being so touching, yet pretty, that I think I will tell you of it. One little Japanese girl spent all her little savings, which consisted of a little over seven yen (silver dollars) in buying a present for an American lady who at one time had befriended her. She walked a distance of over fifteen miles in the early morning, in order to reach the home of the lady before the noon hour set in, because she had no money left wherewith to hire a conveyance. The tea house where she was employed was situated on the highway between Tokyo and Kyoto, and the American lady lived in Tokyo. When she finally reached her destination, she sank down on the little step in front of the house, leaning against the wall, and slipping her shoes, or sandals, from her feet.
“Why, Natsu-san, is that you?” The American lady was standing by her. The girl raised a bright, beaming face to hers and displayed her gift joyously.
“Tha’s account I lig’ you,” she said simply, in pretty broken English.
The American lady’s sweet blue eyes were misty. She knew how little the girl could afford to bring such a gift to her. It was an exquisite silk obi (sash) about fourteen feet long and fourteen inches wide, besides being doubled, and made of the finest material.
“Tha’s account this New Year, an’ I thing’ that I mek’ you present, because you bin’ mos’ vaery kin’ to me.”
“Why, Natsu-san, what did you bring me this for?”
The American lady had even forgotten wherein she had been kind to the girl. I believe it was that she had at one time saved the girl from being whipped by an unscrupulous master, and had obtained her a good position, her husband having some influence in Tokyo. Perhaps the sweetest characteristic of the Japanese is their innate gratitude for the smallest act of kindness displayed to them.
“It was awfully sweet of you Natsu-san.”
The girl made a graceful gesture of dissent.
“I nod vaery sweed,” she said, “I thing’ pretty Americazan lady vaery sweed.”
So the general good spirit and feeling spreads to the foreigners as well as the Japanese themselves, and as one surveys the happy, contented faces of this little people, they shudder at the terrible old missionary adage that “man is vile.” Ah, not in Japan!

A Characteristic Trait

The deferential, almost slave-like, courtesy of Japanese women is at once apparent to all who visit that beautiful country. It is a little difficult, at first, to become accustomed to their obsequiousness, as it is to reconcile their doll-like beauty with other standards; and the Westerner will hardly appreciate the feelings of the Japanese student, who, after having visited America, thanked God that his wife and mother were Japanese women.
Yet these dainty little creatures have much in their favor. True, they lack the brilliancy and cleverness of their European sisters, but they possess one trait which has made it possible for them to exercise a marked influence upon the destiny of their nation—obedience. If they wield any power, it is the power of trustful silence. With such women, is it any wonder that Japan has taken her place in the front rank of European nations?


koto: lyre-like instrument.
samisen: Japanese stringed instrument with an elongated neck and three strings.
jinrikisha: carriage pulled by a human runner (jinriki-man).
Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868): longstanding feudal government established by Tokugawa Ieyasu and characterized by the dominance of the samurai class and isolation from the West. Ended with the Meiji Restoration, which re-opened Japan to the West and Western culture.


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People Mentioned

Jean Lee Cole

Jean Lee Cole is Senior Consultant on The Winnifred Eaton Archive, author of The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity (2002), co-editor of A Japanese Nightingale and Madame Butterfly: Two Orientalist Texts (2002, with Maureen Honey), and editor of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive (2004). She is Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland.

Greg Murray

Greg Murray is the Director of Digital Initiatives at Princeton Theological and has a MA in Literature and Religion from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Ethan Gruber

Ethan Gruber is the Director of Data Science at the American Numismatic Society and has an M.A. in Art and Architectural History from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

John Ivor Carlson

John Ivor Carlson is the Digital Production Editor at Yale University Press and has a PhD in Medieval Literature from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Jolie Sheffer

Jolie Sheffer is Associate Professor in English and American Culture Studies and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society at Bowling Green State University. She was a research assistant on the original Winnfired Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Jordan Taylor

Jordan Taylor is a teacher of Upper School Humanities, advisor, and UPenn Mentor at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. He has a M.A. in English Literature from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Winnifred Eaton

  • Born: August 21, 1875
  • Died: April 08, 1954
See the Biographical Timeline for biographical information on Winnifred Eaton.

Pseudonym used in this text

Joey Takeda

Joey Takeda is the Technical Director of The Winnifred Eaton Archive and a Developer at Simon Fraser University’s Digital Humanities Innovation Lab (DHIL). He is a graduate of the M.A. program in English at the University of British Columbia where he specialized in Indigenous and diasporic literature, science and technology studies, and the digital humanities.

Mary Chapman

Mary Chapman is the Director of The Winnifred Eaton Archive, a Professor of English, and Academic Director of the Public Humanities Hub at University of British Columbia. She is the author of the award-winning monograph Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and US Modernism (Oxford UP) and of numerous articles about American literature and women writers. She has also edited Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton (McGill-Queen’s UP) and published essays on the Eaton sisters in American Quarterly, MELUS, Legacy, Canadian Literature, and American Periodicals. Her current research project is a microhistory of the Eaton family. For more information, see

Ken Ip

Ken Ip is a graduate of the M.A. program in English at the University of British Columbia and was a research assistant for The Winnifred Eaton Archive. During this time, his research interests were focused towards digital humanities and Indigenous literatures. During his time with the project, he contributed mainly as a transcriber and encoder for several of Eaton’s works. He is currently working with the International Society of Cell and Gene Therapy as Coordinator, Training and Education.