Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Old Enough to Talk about Christmas Back Then

The other day, my friend Janice from Warm Springs reservation was sharing her insight having heard on the news that with the economy spiraling downward, family celebrations would be deeply affected. She said on the reservation, it would be another Christmas like all the other Christmases. Of course, she and her husband George, would be delivering packages to families and especially elders to make their time easier. However, holiday cheer has not changed so much from the simple days when they were young parents and their son and daughter were little children. Quite another story for many Americans. Holidays have amped up in extravagance, influenced by technology, and by new "traditions" like Black Friday, the maxi-shopping day after Thanksgiving and the media bombardment of new gifts to tantalize our children. In lean years, it really dampens the holidays for families.

She remembers that each child got one gift under the tree; there was sledding, hot chocolate with the family watching Charlie Brown's Christmas together. Christmas was a family day not so much a gifts day. For Janice, and many on the reservation, hardships are hardships but holidays will not stand out as especially hard as long as the family can have cocoa, sledding and time together.

I remember when I was a child growing up with my little sister with grandparents, mother, two bachelor uncles in one house. My Auntie Grace, the youngest, was also there before she went off to college, the only child to make it to college since my uncles and mother were caught in high school during WWII and all the curfew rules and laws against Nikkei. Mom and we two moved into the multigenerational family when she divorced her husband. We don't know dad much. There were no visits, inquiries after us. Divorce in those days was serious. I have since met his youngest sister, her husband, and their daughters and sons, who are our cousins, and like them very much -- enough to just let that part of our shared family history go and form a new relationship just with each other. Divorce was rare, so we've always been raised by mom to be grateful to our family for taking us in and loving us despite the stigma we carried in with our suitcases.

As children we have the fondest memories of those days, protected from the tough truth the adults faced. The adults always hide the hardship from the children. We had a roof, good food our family grew and preserved after each harvest. We knew where food came from -- hard work. We saw the gardens, the fields. An electric fence separated us from the cow, and there was a pen for pigs and chickens ran all over. We were surrounded by adults and never got away with anything -- and that's called love. We certainly were not neglected.

Before we went to bed on Christmas Eve, we would set out cookies and a little glass of milk for Santa. Grandma made the best sugar cookies with what we called "plastic frosting," hard gem colored sugary frosting which made cookies look so special. Grandma would hang for each of us one of her long stockings before "nylons" were invented and produced for the masses. Grandma or Momma would fill them with oranges, ribbon candy, Brazil nuts, walnuts, filberts, and tie them to our iron bedstead at the foot of the bed Mom, Marti and I shared, some time while we girls slept. Those long stockings which looked like brown pythons just after they swallowed prey were the first thing we saw Christmas morning.

I remember we got one special present from the family. Despite the little ritual we did with Santa, I'm not sure I believed he brought the present. Christmas was not a gift extravaganza, and children and adults were equally celebrated. The extravaganza part was the "ogochiso," the feast. Grandma and Mom always cooked up a storm, Japanese food and American food as they called anything not Japanese. I don't remember much of the food -- but I do remember "osushi," "omanju," sweet potatoes, beans. At a young age I really didn't like meat, so I'm a bit clueless what kind was served. Perhaps, on a holiday, I didn't have to eat it. I do remember fruitcake. I was part of a family who actually liked fruitcake. My guess is they thought being American, they had to have fruitcake and like it. I think I was "most American" in the family though because I absolutely hated it.

After we moved into town, and just lived with the grandparents and mom, being teens, we added things. Moving into town meant events and school and church were the center of activity. At that time caroling was added, Christmas parties, Christmas service, but it's the simple family Christmas on the farm when we all lived in close quarters that I remember the most.

The big winter holiday for our family on the farm and later, off the farm, was not Christmas. It was New Years. Our closest Nikkei neighbors in Marsing, on our farm, were the Kaneshiges and the Yamamotos, and later the Nakanos. That meant around New Year time, we would go to feasts at each family's house. Oshogatsu lasted for days! School would start, and we were still celebrating, riding the school bus and getting off at another family's stop. For New Years, each family cooked New Years food which, unlike Christmas, I fully remember because each food had a meaning we learned, and each food has a story behind it -- like when I was four and my sister was two, Uncle Bill getting my little sister to chase me with the tako (octopus) before it became the delicately sliced dish and still dangled from her hands with tentacles spilling this way and that, lumpy and scary.

Where do people homesteading what was once Idaho desert get octopus, squid, fish, Japanese ingredients? One of our most treasured visitors, because on a farm, all visitors mean excitement, was Mr. Kanetomi who drove his delivery truck clear from Ontario, Oregon, to all the Japanese farm families. Kanetomi's was the only Japanese store in the Boise Valley, Treasure Valley region. We would run out to his wagon and he'd let us clamber in. We would breathe in the smells of dried fish, shoyu, and accept the treat of "ginger candy" before Grandma would come out and shoo us away so she could fit in the truck to shop.

For New Years, we always had a whole fish -- tai, it's head and tail curved upward for good luck. We had a whole chicken to represent family. We had orange kan ten (gelatin cut into attractive shapes) -- a lucky color. There was Osushi with eight things rolled into it == for blessings. We had nishime, root vegetables, shiitake mushroom, bamboo and each thing meant something. The bamboo was strength, the kelp rolled and tied with a kampyo braid is the family staying together, lotus root, happiness, shitake, strength. It was a dish we ate because we had to as children. We always had what our family called maze-gohan (aka chirashi-gohan) which was mixed vegetable rice, and what our family called okowa (aka sekihan) which is azuki beans and sweet rice -- our red beans and rice. There was tempura shrimp, octopus sliced thin, sashimi sliced thin. There were rice fingerfood formed into a fan with a sliced round red shoga (ginger) red sun; some formed into a matsu (pine) with a sprig of parsley placed in the center, and some formed into a blossom, sprinkled with pink shrimp flakes. There was a dessert we called bota mochi (aka ohagi) with sweetrice in the center covered with red bean paste, or "an." I loved this dessert so much! I remember Grandma making the "an" an arduous process which took hours. Now one only needs to buy a package.

The week before Oshogatsu was one of my favorite "arduous" preparations. Grandma would soak the sweet rice kome over night and steam them in layers of bamboo rounds. When the steamed rice was ready, she would run it outside where the men waited in the tin roofed shed. We used a tree stump which had been hollowed out to hold a nabe, or pan in which Grandma put the steaming rice. Uncle Bill, Grandpa, and Uncle George would take turns then pounding the rice until it became a mass. While they pounded, rhythmically, Grandma, who knelt beside the stump, would quickly turn the rice mass over during the upbeat. You can see why we loved this ceremony. It was so satisfying, the rhythm, and the perfectly choreographed movements of the men and grandma.

When the "mochi" was ready, grandma would scamper with the nabe holding the smooth, rounded bread dough like mass into the house with us trailing behind her. The table was already prepared, oilcloth, cornstarch powdered on it. The big sticky mass of mochi, still steaming, would be placed on the cornstarch. Grandma would wet her hands from a small bowl of water and deftly squeeze from the hot mass, balls of mochi, and drop them quickly on the cornstarch before it could burn her hands. My mother and probably my aunts slightly rolled the sticky ball in the cornstarch, scooped it up into their hands to pat and massage them into round shapes. I loved watching this.

Mochi is so important for New Years. First of all, we fix it for our ancestors. We place it before their pictures on our home alter. I think the picture was of my Great-Grandpa who my Uncle George resembled, but now, we all have pictures of our issei grandparents. The decorative mochi, "kazari mochi" is made of two large mochi in graduated size topped with a mandarin orange with leaves. One of the hardest things about living in Eugene is that although the leafy oranges are sold everywhere for Christmas, suddenly no oranges can be found in time for Japanese New Year. We've all done our best to educate the grocers here, but finding the mikan with leaves is always a crapshoot.

Everything that happened on New Year set the tone for the year. So we had to clean the house before New Years so the year would not be dirty. We didn’t work or clean on New Year’s Day so the year would not be full of drudgery. Most of the food was cooked before New Years for that reason too. Absolutely no arguments. My sister and I had a hard time with this but we tried harder. Later when we became older we learned all bills are to be paid before New Years too. As children, our family never ever bought on credit so that was not an issue.

Mochi was our special breakfast early New Years morning. We woke up early (so we wouldn't be lazy all year) to a special breakfast of ozoni -- mochi in a tasty clear broth with something green, red trimmed fishcake slices for luck, strips of shitake for strength. I loved the feel of mochi in my mouth as a child. Ozoni is the ultimate comfort food.

Later, that day, we could have mochi in a soup of "an" or mochi toasted with a shoyu and sugar glaze rolled in soybean flour. Yum! Mochi, mochi, mochi!

I still remember, as an adult in Eugene, Oregon, going to the Bijou to see "Tampopo" back in the '80's, when it came to town. Everyone was talking about this "must see" art film of pursuing the perfect bowl of ramen. Debbie Osato and I sat in the darkened theater, the only Japanese Americans in a full house. I mention this because it is significant to my story. In the middle of this movie, there is a scene which is unforgettable to most JA's. An elderly man is eating "ozoni," the Japanese New Year's breakfast I was telling you about. In Japan you can have ozoni anytime! You can see the "mochi" he picks up from the broth with his "ohashi" or chopsticks, oozing strings of its luscious gooey goodness we so love to feel in our mouths; you could almost smell the brothiness. Right at that moment two distinct sounds filled the theater. A loud moan of yumminess escaped from Debbie and me, "MMMMMMM!" We couldn't help it. It looked so good, and we were virtual exiles in Eugene treated to "ozoni" only if we travel home for New Years. "MMMMMMMMMM!" At the same moment we said "MMMMMM!" the whole audience in unison let out "YUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK."

It was the weirdest experience! We had a short but loud giggling fit. Our Eugene moment. Debbie thought up a t-shirt slogan after that. I'm from "Hakujin, Oregon" (Hakujin meaning white people). In the movie, the elderly man who really shouldn't have been eating ozoni collapses with mochi stuck in his elderly throat and his grandson goes running for the vacuum cleaner and hose. Apparently his grandpa does this often. We can absolutely understand this addiction. I will NEVER give up ozoni no matter what it does to me!!
Well, it's happened again. JA's can talk only so long about being JA and it eventually ends up on the topic of food. My friend, Richard Lin, pointed that out. He's married to a Nikkei. He told me he liked the Japanese gatherings more than his own community's because everyone always ends up talking about food. At Chinese gatherings, he said, everyone always ends up talking about business, but "you guys, it's about the food." Richard and I laughed, but I've found that it's true! Here I am, started out about Christmas in times of economic stress, old time Christmas, Santa Claus, and BAM! food -- oooooing and ahhhhing over food and even confessing I'd risk my life for food. It IS all about the food!


  1. definitely...the biggest memories are about food...and the gathering of people. somehow i knew that i was supposed to be respectful around the food and company, but never really focused enough to know why...and i was acutely aware of how much work and loving care and pride went into preparing it, amd it still holds for me "comfort". i too have the fondest memories surrounding mochi tsuki... transported into an active world where everyone knew what and where they were supposed to be. hmmm, i don't remember a single christmas present, or even thinking about that as part of the magic of christmas...the stockings were special only because of the mystery surrounding them...but i do remember being safe and warm and loved.~m

  2. I remember the plastic square blocks with primary colored tops which looked like Grandma's plastic cookie frosting so we used it for food. Once we got a set of dishes which we played with outside, mixing dirt with water and serving mud pies. Once we got those cardboard farm animals you could stand up which I loved. The plastic doll furniture we treasured. Then I gave it to Maki when she first came and she thought it was fun to step on them and crunch them up. They must have sounded cool to her. After that, a doll a year for each of us and they became this huge family and we would do "plays" with them, entertaining ourselves for hours, and you'd entertain me when I had the measles, the mumps, chicken pox with their adventures -- Ticky and Becky, Charles and Nancy, Karen and Tyra, Lucy and Panda -- not the oldest but the biggest so they became mom and dad, I forgot what we named the Campbell soup kewpies, Renee whose head flew off when you twirled her around, Shirley, Clownie (thank you for letting me have him for Maki) and I forgot who Clownie's partner was. Of course there were the puppets Howdy Doody and Clarabelle. Then we became 13 and no more dolls.

    It just occurred to me, I wonder if my concept of family was influenced by the doll family -- No one was matchy matchy, just who each was.

    On Easter, Grandma would put a basket for each of us at the foot of the same bed where the python stockings hung at Christmas -- and this time it was filled with rabbit cookies with white plastic frosting and pink eyes, and the colored eggs mom painted in marbled colors, one Peeks, and some jelly beans and one cadbury egg. I didn't get cadbury eggs when I was younger due to chocolate allergies. Grrrr. Did you bite off the bunny's ears first?

  3. ah yes, becky with the tan (except for her chin)...and i think there was a nellie in there somewhere...and there was the lovely wooden patsy and cloth karen that i thought would be fun to bury in the dirt when we were waiting for everyone that was working in the field..and your pristine karen...and the time you tried to fit me into one of the doll clothes and had to sush me while you got the scissors to cut me out of the clothes...i loved the plays cuz when you were sick you would laugh at all the slapstick routines...and i do think it was renee who hooked up with clownie until she lost her head...and had to go into rehab under the bed by the heat vent...then clownie must have ended up with shirley.i do remember the mud pies and cardboard animals...but not so much the plastic blocks, i wonder why?...my most vivid, was sneaking out of the window, hiding under the homemade willow chairs, and wondering if the family would notice we ran away, and knowing we couldn't get back in the way we came out...i loved the dark brown easter baskets with bright pink and bright green stripes...and YES, i ate the rabbits leaving the face for last, and would throw half the cadbury's away because it was too sweet, but hiding it cuz i wanted to get one in the pretty foil wrappers that i loved to smell, the next year...and those baskets, new shoes, and purses made easter more special than my birthday or christmas every year...sigh...our doll family went waaaaaay beyond interracial dating...panda and lucy?
    clownie was human? tickey's pants were crocheted glasses case with leg holes cut out...the campbell twins at least had nice outfits, but were too new to leave a lasting impression...i mean did we bother to name them more than the campbell twins...was one a boy??? the most interesting thing is that they all had very unique and consistent personalities...came alive for us...even as we would carefully arrange them in that red vinyl covered bed...i loved lucy and panda, but miss ticky and becky the most.~m

  4. Me too. Ticky and Becky were my favorites. Seems like you always had to have the boy dolls. Ticky, Charles and Panda were all yours.

    You were good at slapstick plays. Remember how you made us life at oshogatsu feasts whether at the Yamamotos, Nakanos or Kaneshige's, someplace where there were too many people to really be noticed at the kid's tables, putting foods together that didn't belong in the soup or something gross like that. And Wally, of course, pulled his eyelids back and chased us. Paul tried his judo moves. And we -- you Betty Yamamoto and I would run into a room and lock ourselves in. Good mannered Nihonjins? I don't think so (smile).


"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

from Outside the Monster's Belly

from Outside the Monster's Belly
. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.