O Christmas Half-of-a-Tree!!

“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree:  the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”  ~Burton Hillis

“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.”  ~Larry Wilde quotes

“Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under the tree”  ~Charlotte Carpenter quotes

(See Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan for even more fun Japanese Christmas music)

Everyone seems to almost instinctively know what a Christmas tree is, and that is now no different here in Okinawa than say, in Duluth, Minnesota.  Such icons universally consist of a decorated tree (usually an evergreen), real or artificial.  But how many of us really know or understand the roots (pun intended!) of The Christmas Tree?

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Christmas trees have long been traditionally decorated with foods widely available, such as apples and nuts, but today can consist almost of anything with strong emotional or sentimental value, but often include garland, tinsel, and candy canes.  In the 18th century candles were often added, which then morphed to modern lighting with the wide introduction of electricity.  An angel or star often tops the tree, usually in representation of the Star of Bethlehem (from Jesus’ story).

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

Our current cultural and religious custom of the Christmas tree comes from 15th and 16th century devout Christians (including the reformist Martin Luther) who resided in the area of Europe now associated with modern Germany.  However, what most of us may find rather surprising is that the Christmas tree didn’t acquire popularity beyond this area until the second half of the 19th century, or well into the mid-to-late 1800s!  The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree” (or Tree of Life), especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.

Original Sin.  It's her fault.  Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

Original Sin. It’s her fault. Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

tumblr_mxnxjvkXQ61qdg05vo1_500While the origins of the modern Christmas tree are clear and undebated, there are a number of speculative theories of such custom and tradition prior to the 1400s.  Such icons are frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter pagan rites and rituals.  Such use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands has long been utilized to symbolize eternal life by widely diverse cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.  Thus, a type of “tree worship” became common in ancient times and thus was common among the pagan Europeans when Christianity started to sweep the continent.   And, luckily for us, the rite and ritual survived the pagans’ conversion to Christianity (mostly through its continued use as the “Tree of Paradise” stage prop in the popular Paradise Plays of the 11th century), and became decorations for the house and barn alike (sometimes as wintry homes for song birds at Christmastime), and were sometimes used at the New Year to scare evil.

Now that's a tree, Japan!!

Now that’s a tree, Japan!!

I hope she doesn't celebrate ANY other holiday....

I hope she doesn’t celebrate ANY other holiday….

Given this backdrop, and having no tangible ties to any particular strong religious tradition (I think of Christmas and all its trappings, including the trees, as more symbolic of a generalized spirit of love and giving), we decided to leave all our more conventional holiday decorations at home during our move to Japan.  Sure, we brought a Santa hat and our stockings (we both still have our Mother-made stockings from our childhood!), but not much else, including our tree.  We decided to let the spirit of Okinawa and our living space dictate a new holiday rite for me and Jody.

When space is an issue....

When space is an issue….

First thing we had to do was find a tree.  Not a real one – those are hard to come by in Okinawa, a relatively remote sub-tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, but an artificial one.  But, we had to contend with our relatively low condo ceilings, along with a want for space.  On top of this, we find out that the initial artificial tree shipment to the base exchanges sold out in mere days…and, of course, we missed what only could’ve been a mad rush for trees.  Lucky for us we meandered one afternoon into the base craft shop looking for extraordinary ornaments for our as of yet unsourced tree, and behold:  a room full of artificial, pre-light, small-ish Christmas trees!  Expensive ones, but we were in luck.

Whole or Half:  You Decide

Whole or Half: You Decide

11491260433_bd0d618afe_bWe actually found (and purchased) a “half-tree.”  And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like:  a half of an artificial tree, with a stand that will support its lopsidedness, but which also has an anchor point/hook high up on the trunk in case you have to deal with, say, an unruly cat who may decide to climb the tree when no one’s looking….

Charlie Brown's Tree, the Japanese interpretation

Charlie Brown’s Tree, the Japanese interpretation

11491247796_7593c905da_bThe tree works perfectly in our place!  It is maybe 6.5 feet in height, and since it’s only half a tree, we were able to push it back into a corner to conserve space while allowing us to fill in the visibly accessible part of the tree that much more.

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally-sized box!

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally sized box!


11491176634_19e24c83fc_bFor decorations we went with our initial Asian, Japanese, and Okinawan-inspiration.  So, our ornaments consisted mainly of origami art (cranes, butterflies, and angels), paper crafted shapes, wooden dolls, miniature obis, and other flirtations with the Far East.  These, combined with the minimalistic white lighting of the tree, results in a quite unconventional appearance by most western standards.  We love it!



11491244823_1861dafb41_bBut, to top off our tree, we wanted truly spectacular and of local custom and tradition.  What we found was perfect for the occasion:  a Hanagasa.  The Hanagasa is a brilliantly colored, flowered-adorned hat worn in many areas of Japan, but here the Okinawans have developed their own particular tradition regarding this type of headdress.  Worn by Okinawan women performing a dance called Yotsudake (“four bamboo,” referring to the bamboo castanets played by the dancers), the large and unique silk hat features a gold-trimmed design of a stylized lotus flower and ocean waves, set against a backdrop of blue skies.  It’s mesmerizing to watch one dancer on her own with her slow, graceful movements; it is breathtaking to see five or six woman so adorned move as one.

...Cleo waits patiently....

…Cleo waits patiently….


11491181675_17fb20f702_bWe found a smaller version of the Hanagasa designed for display on dolls, and it worked perfectly to complete our tree.  Like the symbolism that a topping star may hold for others, our Hanagasa makes for an unforgettable sight, and its harmonious flowers seem to sway in time to the carols we often play in the background, things which should remind us all of the beauty, resilience and connectedness that we all share, with each other, and with every other living thing, during this spiritual time of love and giving.



11615344235_28dcdd1a5c_bMerry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays.  Whatever YOU prefer to say, please don’t forget to pause your daily grind, express your thanks to those that deserve it, be giving to those that need it, and let Love and Hope win for just a few fleeting moments as you gaze upon your own tree, or other perhaps more appropriate symbolic icon of the season.


How are you celebrating Christmas this year??




The Last Banzai

Banzai:  a traditional Japanese exclamation meaning “ten thousand years,” shortened from a more involved cry to the Emperor of Japan, Tenno Heika Banzai” (天皇陛下萬歲, “Long live the Emperor”).

Emperor Hirohito, World War II Era

Emperor Hirohito, World War II Era

“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

These last two weeks have been very spiritual in atmosphere and experience for me.  The untimely passing of a close friend and brother skydiver, necessitating such a permanent goodbye on top of an already tough sayonara to my friends and family, has had me reaching both inside and out for a reconnection with a more spiritual dimension of life.  While I cannot attest (nor do I want to) that I am a man of any particular denominational faith, I remain a being of faith…that there is something more that binds us in our shared human experience, which allows us to live on in some form or fashion across epoch and cosmos.  Crudely stated, for me personally, perhaps the best evidence for any god can be found in the unpretentious and pure love of a cat.  Love, in fact, may be the only evidence of a higher power that remains tangible for most, visible to all.

Cleo Loves Me.  Or at Least My Feet.

Cleo Loves Me. Or at Least My Feet.

I was struck at my friend Jimmy’s memorial how much the service, at the Church and at the graveside, centered on the Christian God and in assisting Jimmy in finding salvation through his system of beliefs.  Jim was a devout Catholic, and no matter what is stated here, I wish to take nothing from his faith, something he held so dear.  But the lack of focus, comment, or even celebration of “Jimmy” left me feeling empty and at odds with myself – and the services.  The goodbye that most Western faiths offer is too final, or only offers a “see ya on the other side” where one is expected to wait until their own demise to once again be reunited with departed loved-ones.

I used to think that funerals were quite pedestrian, almost unnecessary.  Until I started to lose friends and shipmates in the Navy, and over time I realized that such services really do not serve the dead any purpose whatsoever, but are for the living.  What “the living” want and need out of such rituals varies, but I believe at a common denominator, they all should assist those still in the realm of life to connect, even if for a moment, with the ether of the dead.

Prayer and Spirituality

Prayer and Spirituality

But what is wrong with conversing with the spiritual world now?  If there is such a dimension, ought there be something more between it and us than simply outwaiting time for death to arrive and reunify?  Certainly I’m not the only one to think so; why else would we visit graves, leave mementos, and converse with the dead so often and for so long?  However, such facets of western faith are not formally recognized (in my experienced) nor practiced (well), and certainly not embraced as a public holiday or part and parcel of American culture.

Then Jody and I relocate to Okinawa.  Amidst the bustle and hustle of our international move, fraught with having to secure off-base housing on the economy, purchasing, registering and insuring two vehicles, and getting Jody checked into work and me checked into the military’s machine here on-island, we arrive exactly at one of the most spiritual times for the Okinawans:  Obon.

Obon in Japan, an Ancestral Family Reunion

Obon in Japan, an Ancestral Family Reunion

Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors.  There to be two main types of religion or spiritual tradition in Japan:  Shinto and Buddhism.  While mainland (Honshu) Japan is more Shinto in many areas, Okinawa retains a large Buddhist community, reflecting roots which run deep and long with Korea and China.  This Buddhist-Confucian custom here has evolved into a family-reunion of sorts, and is now a Prefecture (a geographical region akin to a state) holiday during which Okinawans return to ancestral family dwellings after visiting and cleaning family gravesites, after which whose spirits are invited to revisit “home” and reunite with the living.  It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori, which in (and only in) Okinawa is more specifically called Eisa.

Eisa Dance, a Uniquely Okinawan Spiritual Tradition

Eisa Dance, a Uniquely Okinawan Spiritual Tradition

The festival of Obon lasts for three days, but is celebrated at differing times in Japan depending upon where one resides.  When the lunar calendar, used by the Japanese in more ancient times, was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era (early 20th century), some localities refused to change their spiritual observances, resulting in three different times of Obon. “Shichigatsu Bon” (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of July in eastern Japan, such as the Kantō region, including Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku areas.  “Hachigatsu Bon” (Bon in August), the most common observance of Bon, is based on the lunar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of August.  “Kyu Bon” (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so this observance differs each year.  “Kyu Bon” is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kantō region, Chūgoku region, Shikoku, and the Okinawa Prefecture.  In Okinawa, the third day of Bon is a holiday and most businesses are closed mid-week.

Eisa Dancers Guide Spirits in Okinawa

Eisa Dancers Guide Spirits in Okinawa

We arrived on-island on the 16th of August, and just this past week Bon was celebrated here from the 19th through the 21st of August.  At night, just after sundown, you could hear throughout the adjoining neighborhoods the traditional music, drums, and whistling which accompany the celebration of Bon and the performance of Eisa.  During the day gravesites were refreshed and traffic was heavy as families traveled the island to share this special time at childhood homes.

Eisā (エイサー) is a form of Okinawan folk dance originally derived from Bon celebrations.  This dance is performed by the younger people of each community during the Bon festival to honor the spirits of their ancestors, but it certainly doesn’t exclude the older generations, usually seen playing the traditional Okinawa instruments.  It is a vital part both of Bon on Okinawan, being intricately woven into the very cultural fabric here, designed to embrace and guide good spirits, while keeping unmentionables at bay.

Traditional Okinawan Family Tombs

Traditional Okinawan Family Tombs

Days before Obon begins, many families gather to clean their ancestors’ graves to help demonstrate to the spiritual world that all will soon be able to share time in the land of the living.

More Modern Okinawan Tomb Equivalents

More Modern Okinawan Tomb Equivalents

On the first day of Obon known as “unkeh,” chochin lanterns are lit inside houses, and people go to their family’s grave to call their ancestors’ spirits back home (“mukae-bon”).  In some regions, fires called “mukae-bi” are lit at the entrances of houses to help guide the spirits home, brightening up doorways across the island as the living stand in front of their homes to help greet spirits as darkness descends.  Homes are cleaned, and a variety of food offerings are placed at a butsudan

Obon Ancestral Alter

Obon Ancestral Alter

(Buddhist altar) along with the chochin lanterns and colorful and fresh flower arrangements.  In Okinawa, a bundle of 13 short pieces of sugar cane and a long, uncut cane are also placed on the side of the altar; while most offerings of food are made in pairs or in a package, the countable foods like the sugar cane are always given in odd-number increments.  The long piece is said to be used as a walking stick by the spirits as they leave the house and return to their tombs.  That evening, families dine on a porridge-like meal known as “jushi,” offered to and shared with the spirits of their deceased relatives.

Spiritual Nightlight:  Chochin Lantern with Family Crest

Spiritual Nightlight: Chochin Lantern with Family Crest

During the second night (“nakabi”), ancestors are offered three meals.  The day is dedicated to family members visiting with relatives and apologizing to their ancestors for not communicating for so long (read:  CALL YOUR MOMMA).  They pray for forgiveness and offer additional gifts to the spirits.

Okinawan Spiritual Connection:  Prayer & Thanks

Okinawan Spiritual Connection: Prayer & Thanks

The third and final day of Bon (“ukui”), the climax of the family reunification, centers on a farewell dinner which is carefully prepared and placed before the butsudan into a special box called the “jyubako” as a final offering for the spirits, along with sake, tea and other special foods.  The family also prepares the “minnuku,” a special meal made of grass or scraps of

Jyubako Box, Sustainment for the Dead

Jyubako Box, Sustainment for the Dead

food that can be offered to any bad spirits or homeless, wandering spirits which the ancestors might meet on their journey back to the tomb.  To ensure that the spirits will have no needs as they cross back over into the spiritual world, “uchikabi,” money made of paper and stamped with the shape of a coin by a hammer and iron mold is placed on the jyubako.  The entire family – living and dead – comes together in front of the butsudan as the meal is prepared, and incense is burned while the family gives thanks for their good health and prays for the safety, happiness, and prosperity of the family in the year to come.

Spiritual Debt:  Paying the Ferryman

Spiritual Debt: Paying the Ferryman

After the meal, men sing and play a banjo-like instrument made of snakeskin, called the “samisen.”  Just before midnight the ancestral spirits are bid a fond farewell and the paper money is burned by the head of the family and his sons.  They douse the ashes with tea and sake, and place the souvenir foods and the minnuku.  A final pray is made to help ensure the spirits’ safe return to their tomb, and that they will again come back again and visit in the following year.  Family members help return their ancestor’s spirits back to the grave, hanging chochin painted with the family crest to guide the spirits back to their resting places (“okuri-bon”).  In some regions, fires called okuri-bi are lit at entrances of houses to assist in sending back their ancestors’ spirits.  During Obon, the smell of senko incense fills Japanese houses and cemeteries.

Spiritual Flight:  Japanese Crane with Obon Banner

Spiritual Flight: Japanese Crane with Obon Banner

The idea of formal, celebrated, and embraced spiritual reunifications with ancestral familial members has refreshed my feelings about death, loss, and my own spirituality.  I believe we all could do well by taking part of a week each year to not just lament loss in our families or of our friends, or even to celebrate their lives past, but rather take three days to invite those we love back into not just our homes, but into our lives, in celebration of all that was, is, and remains to be.  It is in embracing and inviting such spirituality into our ordinary lives that connects us through time and space, not simply via funerary mass.

Party On:  Spiritual Honor & Celebration

Party On: Spiritual Honor & Celebration

While Jimmy got the sendoff he expected and deserved, and most were able to say a tearful “goodbye,” I choose not to idly wait to “see” him again.  Rather, during Bon next year here in Okinawa, Jimmy, along with my own ancestry, will be welcomed into my life again to be reacquainted and celebrated.  Just don’t tell Jody; most shishi dogs already freak her out (wink)!

Banzai, Jimmy!!

Banzai, Uncle Bob!!

Banzai, Mom!!

It is in this way we all may live for ten thousand years!

What Many Americans Probably Think of Banzai!

What Many Americans Probably Think of Banzai!

PS – thanks to a fellow blogger Maki Photography for use of some wonderful images!