Happy New Year!

Out with the old, in with the new!

Wishing all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year of hope and rejuvenation!

Doing Christmas Differently These Days

Our little twig tree is small and simple, but still loaded with memories

Christmas was not a happy, festive time at our home when I was growing up, and I don’t have warm, fuzzy memories about it. Although we were far from poor, my parents always made the holiday another seem like another financial burden and nuisance for them to bear. While my dad didn’t deliberately choose a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, we often seemed to get the nearest thing to it, with our tree shedding most of its needles before it ever came through the door. Christmas lists were eagerly drawn up by my siblings and myself every year but I don’t remember ever receiving even one thing I asked and hoped for. Parsimony and cheapness ruled the day unless it was for hockey gear for my brothers; then no expense was spared. The worst Christmas gift I can recall (and there are many to choose from) was the November and December volumes from a Time-Life series of books my parents subscribed to for the family – they were my “gift” under the tree that year, but went up on the family bookshelf later in the day.

The gifts we children gave were unimaginative as well, but there wasn’t much you could buy for five others with a dollar or two. We never received an allowance, so our Christmas shopping funds were from pennies we had saved throughout the year, and maybe a few dollars our dad gave us. I remember giving Dad a bar of Dial soap for several years (and him acting thrilled) and giving my mom a bottle of dime-store “Evening In Paris” perfume one year (and her not being thrilled, but then who could be?). I dreaded going back to school after the holidays because it was painful to hear about or see all the wonderful and thoughtful gifts my friends and classmates had received.

As you might imagine, I packed up a lot of baggage along the way about Christmas and how it should be celebrated. When Brett and I got married, I was determined that Christmas was going to be the happiest, most exciting time of the year for our little family, with a big tree, the whole house decorated, lots of baking and parties, and presents, presents, presents! Money was no object – even if we didn’t have it – and I tried to fulfill every wish on everyone’s list as well as knock everyone’s socks off with something totally unexpected and wonderful. As you might imagine, we often incurred a lot of debt every year at Christmas.

The year we started to pay off our debt was when I finally got serious about putting together a real budget for Christmas, one that we continue to adhere to. It was amazing how freeing that one simple step was. No agonizing over how we were going to pay for “the perfect Christmas,” no anxiety about the bills coming after. The girls still received one big, special gift that Brett and I chose carefully, another smaller gift from us, and a few things in each of their stockings, but that that was all. We helped the girls earn funds for their Christmas shopping throughout the year, and they had fun thinking of useful or asked-for gifts that would fit within their budgets. We stopped exchanging gifts outside of our immediate family other than homemade treats. We also downsized and kept decorations to a minimum, and went with a smaller tree for years versus our usual (and expensive) 8-foot noble fir, although before moving to Hawaii we purchased a 7.5 foot artificial tree that could display all our ornaments.

No matter where we’ve gathered these past ten years, and how we’ve celebrated, we’re all just as excited about our family Christmas as ever. Being together is what’s important, even though this year some of our celebration will be done via Zoom. Downsizing to a smaller, more simple Christmas has not stifled anything; in fact, we’ve found that our holiday can be a lot more fun as well as more creative when we’re more thoughtful about our gift-giving and other aspects of the holiday.

Getting ready to sort through over 100 ornaments and divide them up for our children.

This year, because of our small apartment, we’ve downsized to a small but pretty twig tree, and I’ve gone through our massive ornament collection and divided them up among our four children. Brett and I have kept a few ornaments for ourselves along with favorites from my once-huge wooden Santa collection. It’s more than enough now, and the things we’ve kept come loaded with memories. All the other ornaments will go to our children next year, to let them begin building a connection between our past Christmas celebrations and memories and their own traditions for the future.

Christmas is smaller and lighter these days at our home, but more meaningful than ever. All that old baggage I carried for so many years has been tossed out for good, and I’m so much happier and satisfied with the quieter, smaller holiday we celebrate now, no matter where we are. It took me a while to get here, but I’m grateful to have arrived.

Girls’ Day (Hinamatsuri)

The emperor and empress sit at the top of a Hina Matsuri display. A display with only the emperor and empress is called a shinnō kazari.

Today is Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) in Japan, sometimes referred to as Girls’ Day. It’s a very special holiday in Japan, dedicated to female children and their health and development. Preparations for the day usually begin in mid- to late-February when both families and businesses set up elaborate displays of hina ningyo (hina dolls). Elaborately crafted and dressed dolls are traditionally placed upon a hinadon, a red stepped display stand, with the emperor and empress at the top, and different courtiers, musicians, and their accessories displayed on the steps below. These displays (hinakazari) range from simple displays to elaborate multi-stepped affairs and are traditionally purchased by a girl’s grandparents. As soon as the festival ends these displays are quickly dismantled and put away as it is believed that leaving them out too long will damage a girl’s chance for a good marriage. 

Our granddaughter’s shinnō kazari. The wrapped packages in front are special Hinamatsuri crackers and candy for kids.
A traditional set and display of hina ningyo.
A simple, but elegant Hinamatsuri display of clay dolls. The two small dolls in front of the larger ones are also emperor and empress dolls!
I call this massive display, “Attack of the Hina Dolls.” The pink blossoms on the sides of the display are peach blossoms, as peaches are associated with the festival.

Special treats are enjoyed during this time, and pink, green and other pastel-colored crackers, candies, cakes, and even sushi can be found in stores and bakeries. These special treats are often eaten and enjoyed at Hinamatsuri parties.

A selection of pretty Hinamatsuri foods and treats.

Merry Christmas!

May you, your family, and your friends be surrounded by all the things that bring you Christmas cheer, and reminded of all the things that bring you happiness and hope. 

Wishing all who celebrate a very merry Christmas!

Back to the Future: Ghosts of Christmas Past

I didn’t post anything on I’m Losing It Here about Christmas in 2009, and have no memories of what we did or didn’t do that year. Brett and I may not have exchanged gifts, and presents for the girls may have been less than usual but I don’t remember anything other than it was a grim time for us. We probably still put up a big tree at the beginning of the month, but anything else about how we spent Christmas that year is lost in a fog.

However, I clearly remember writing the post below a year later, in early December 2010. I had accumulated a lot of heavy baggage from my childhood about Christmas, and 2010 was the year I was finally able to let all that baggage go and truly enjoy the holiday for the first time. We continue to enjoy simple Christmases these days with gifts kept to a minimum. As our oldest daughter said earlier this year, “Mom, it’s not about the presents anymore. It’s about us being together.” So, although this post jumps a little bit ahead in our get-out-of-debt story, I think it’s worth sharing now.

(I’ve also decided to use Brett’s name instead of other references to him because they were driving me nuts and I can only imagine what it is like for readers.)

This Year’s Christmas Non-Shopping

Christmas was not a happy, festive time at our home when I was growing up, and I don’t have any warm, fuzzy memories about those times. Christmas seemed to be another financial burden as well as a nuisance to be borne by my parents. While my dad didn’t deliberately choose the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, we usually seemed to get the nearest thing to it, with our tree shedding most of its needles before it ever came through the door. Christmas lists were eagerly drawn up by my siblings and myself every year but I don’t remember ever once receiving anything I asked and hoped for. Parsimony ruled the day unless it was for hockey gear for my brothers, then no expense was spared. The worst Christmas gift I can recall receiving (and there are many to choose from) was the November and December volumes from a Time-Life series of books my parents subscribed to and that the whole family shared. My mom wrapped the two books and put them under the tree for my gift that year. I dreaded going back to school after the holidays because I didn’t want to hear about or see all the wonderful and thoughtful gifts my friends and classmates had received.

The gifts we children gave were unimaginative as well, but there wasn’t much you could buy for five other people with a dollar or two (we didn’t get an allowance, so our funds were from pennies we had saved throughout the year). My father eventually would pass out a little money to me and my siblings in early December, but before that happened I remember giving him a bar of Dial soap for several years (and him acting thrilled) or giving my mom a bottle of “Evening In Paris” perfume from the dime store one year. She was not thrilled, but then who could be?

As you can imagine, I collected a whole lot of baggage along the way about Christmas and how it should be celebrated. After Brett and I got married, I was determined that Christmas was going to be the happiest, most exciting time of the year, with a big tree, the house decorated to the nines, lots of baking and parties, and presents, presents, presents! Money was no object, not at Christmas, even if we didn’t have it, and I tried to fulfill every wish on everyone’s list as well as knock their socks off with something totally unexpected and wonderful. As you can probably imagine, we incurred debt every year at Christmas and spent the first few months of the year paying it off.

This year is the first where we’ve had a realistic budget for Christmas, one that we’re adhering to. It’s amazing how freeing it is. There’s been no agonizing over how we’re going to pay for Christmas. We’re spending less than half of what we did in the past, supplemented with Amazon credit from Swagbucks. Each of the girls will receive one “big,” special gift that Brett and I have carefully thought about and can afford, and another smaller gift from us (clothing). There’ll be a few small things in each of their stockings, but that’s all. We cut back the amount to be spent on each “Secret Santa” gift to $25 or less per person (we exchange names within the family, including our son and daughter-in-law), and the girls have had fun thinking of useful or much-desired gifts that fit within the budget.  For gifts outside of our immediate family, we are either not giving anything this year, at least not now, or giving homemade treats. We’re also keeping decorations to a minimum, with a small tree on a table this year versus our usual 7-foot noble fir.

You know what the best part is? I’m just as excited about Christmas this year as I’ve ever been. So are the girls and Brett. Being on a budget has not made us feel stifled; in fact, we’ve found we’re having a lot more fun and being more creative and thoughtful about our gift-giving in the process. Who knew?

It appears I’ve finally tossed all that old baggage out for good. Bring on the holidays!

Happy Thanksgiving!

In a completely unrealistic rendering of the first Thanksgiving, my Pilgrim ancestor, Priscila Mullins, serves a roast turkey to Indian guests while her soon-to-be husband, John Alden, stands ready to serve one of the side dishes.

In just a short while we’ll be heading over to Moreton-in-Marsh station one last time to catch a train to Gatwick Airport. We’ll be up in the air for most of the day, but that doesn’t mean Brett and I won’t be thinking of and thankful for the many blessings in our lives, including family, friends, and those of you who continue to check in with us here at The Occasional Nomads.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. Besides the food and being together with friends and family, it’s a time to reflect and express gratitude for the many positive things that exist in our lives, the great memories we’ve made, and the people who are a part of our lives in ways both big and small.

Wishing you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving Day!

The Fourth of July

Independence Day this year feels a bit different to me. I’m experiencing all sorts of emotions these days whenever I think about my country: sometimes confusion, sometimes frustration or fear or disbelief or anger or discouragement. I know others feel differently, but to me that’s one of the things that makes America what it is, that we can feel these things, express them without fear, and still love our country deeply. Although at times nothing feels normal or right, I believe there still remains in this country at the core a true national spirit of courage, integrity, sacrifice, liberty and independence. Although it seems at time we’ve lost our way, maybe we’re just awakening to or coming to terms with a new way, and change is never easy.

Brett and I will be enjoying some red, white and blue Oregon berry parfaits after dinner, and walking over to the OHSU campus a little later in the evening to see if we can catch some of the fireworks displays happening around the city. It’s actually supposed to be clear enough this year to see them (because typically in Portland the clouds go away right around July 5).

Wishing everyone a very happy 4th of July!

Golden Week

Although next Monday is the official start of Golden Week in Japan, because the first holiday falls on a Monday almost everyone’s time off will begin on Saturday. Every year four national holidays occur in the span of one week, and many if not most companies and schools throughout the country close down for the duration. Golden Week is the longest vacation break for most Japanese workers, and along with New Year’s and the Obon festival in August, it’s one of the top three times for vacationing in Japan, with lots of both local and international travel. The name “Golden Week” came about because so many resorts, hotels, inns and travel agencies earned so much income during the week.

Mt. Fuji looms over Hakone National Park. Lots of geothermal activity occurs within the park as well.

Our son said that this might be a good week for us to visit places in Tokyo as the city sort of empties out, so Brett and I are planning to visit the National Museum in Ueno Park, and the nearby Yanaka neighborhood, which was undamaged during the WWII bombings and provides a look at Tokyo pre-war architecture and neighborhood structure. We are also going for a two-day visit to the Hakone-Izu National Park with our son and family this coming Saturday and Sunday; they rented a cabin for us there and we’ll get to visit various sites in the park as well as get an up-close look at Mt. Fuji (If the weather isn’t too bad – sadly the forecast for Saturday is rain and freezing temperatures). On May 5 we will travel to Saitama Prefecture to have lunch with our daughter-in-law’s parents, a much-anticipated event as her mother is an amazing cook (last time we visited she made homemade udon noodles!).

The four official holidays that fall during the coming week are:

  1. April 29: Showa Day (昭和の日 Shōwa no Hi). Showa is probably better known to most of the world as Emperor Hirohito, with his birthday on the 29th a national holiday, beginning in 1927. Following his death in 1989 the holiday’s name was changed to Greenery Day, a day to think about nature and be grateful for one’s blessings. The day was officially changed to Showa Day in 2007.
  2. May 3: Constitution Memorial Day ((憲法記念日 Kenpō Kinenbi). This holiday celebrates the day the postwar constitution of 1947 took effect, and is a day to remember and reflect on Japan’s history. Public buildings such as the Diet (the national capital) are open to the public and public lectures are given about Japan’s role in World War II.
  3. May 4: Greenery Day (みどりの日 Midori no Hi)Previously the holiday was known as Citizen’s Holiday, but in with the April 29th holiday change to Showa Day, Greenery Day was moved to May 4.

    Koinobori fly over a house near our grandson’s school.
  4. May 5: Children’s Day (子供の日Kodomo no Hi). This is probably the most well-know holiday, and is also known as Boy’s Day (girls are celebrated on March 15 with Hina Matsuri). Large carp banners, koinoburi, are flown at residences where there is a son or in large groupings in other places to celebrate the holiday. If flown at a home there is typically a large black carp at the top to represent the father, then a smaller red carp to represent the mother, and finally smaller blue carp for each of the sons. Decorations inside the home may include a display of a samurai riding a carp and/or a samurai helmet, both which indicate strength and vitality.

    Our grandson’s samurai helmet is displayed for a few weeks before Children’s Day.

This year during Golden Week a very special event will occur: the current emperor, Akihito, will abdicate the throne on April 30, the first emperor to do so in over 200 years, and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Emperor Akihito is 85 years old and in frail health, and had come to feel the job was too demanding for him at his advanced age. In Japan, a new era only begins the day after an emperor dies, but in this case the name for the new era, Reiwa (令和時代), was announced early so that calendars, computer software, etc. could be changed in a timely manner. The enthronement, or coronation, of Emperor Naruhito will take place on October 22.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko

Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Princess Masako

The upcoming change to a new emperor is special for us because we were living in Japan when Emperor Hirohito died, and the Heisei Era (平成時代) began, and now are here again when that era ends and another one begins. Emperor Naruhito will be the 126th emperor of the longest reigning dynasty in the world.