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A Yonsei's Reflections...

on Embracing Traditions

The holidays are here! This year, at a time when we usually think about customs passed along through generations, I’ve been finding myself contemplating changing traditions. It’s hard to let go of what’s been ingrained as tradition year after year, especially when you enjoy it so much. Over the past few months though, I’ve been noticing an embracing of different cultures as part of our celebrations, a shift to a more multicultural holiday season.

California First Bank in Little Tokyo. December 21, 1977.

Growing up, the holidays meant food and family. Every Thanksgiving was spent with the Omoto side of the family. It’s always been my most favorite meal of the year. Imagine equal portions of dark meat turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and rice all absolutely drowning in gravy (which my Auntie makes in a big pot which we ladle onto our plates from the stove). There’s also her sweet potatoes with marshmallows that I really love.

Christmas Eve dinner when we were younger was spent with the Murakami side. After we would get home that night, we would open up our presents under our tree because the next morning would be busy with getting ready to go to the Omoto side party. At some point along the way, my cousin Tami and I became the main people handing out the gifts from under the tree.

1991 Omoto Christmas party

A week later, we would be back with the Omotos for New Year’s Eve. For a long time, shabu-shabu became the standard for dinner. The Kohaku Utagassen would be playing on the TV, while we enjoyed the food and company. There would be a flurry of activity just before midnight as my Auntie would prepare bowls of toshi koshi soba. Champagne and apple cider were poured into glasses, and the channel would be switched over to ABC for the countdown to the new year. New Year’s Day would begin with my mother’s ozoni, and then over to the Murakamis for Oshogatsu lunch. [My first article in this series provides more details on our New Year’s traditions: A Yonsei’s Reflections...on a New Year and New Beginnings.]

Thanksgiving Kalua turkey

As I write all of this though, I realize that our traditions have been changing all along. The Murakamis stopped having their Christmas Eve parties a long time ago. I think it was after my Murakami Ba-chan passed away. A couple of years ago, the Omotos stopped giving individual gifts and instead now do a white elephant gift exchange. Last year, my mother “retired” as the food coordinator for the Omoto family parties. It’s now a rotating position among the cousins. This year is my sister and my turn.

Thankgiving spread

My favorite Omoto Thanksgiving meal is now something I get only every other year. Now that I’m married, we alternate Thanksgiving and Christmas between my family and my husband’s side. This year we were with his family for a Hawaiian-themed Thanksgiving meal that included poke, won tons, kalua turkey, stuffing with Portuguese sausage, yams with pineapple, makizushi, and spam musubi.

Although I did really miss having my gravy, I have to admit that it was all really good and gravy wouldn’t have gone well with the meal. I did end up getting my sweet potatoes with marshmallows later though—my Auntie happened to make extra potatoes this year, so she gave my sister the extra pie tin which we baked and enjoyed the following week.

Sweet potatoes and marshmallows

At the Japanese American National Museum’s holiday party for our staff and volunteers, we had Chinese food for dinner and were entertained by a local band playing Hawaiian music, a hilarious telling of “The Night Before Christmas JANM-style” which incorporated Giant Robot, kokeshi, and huge origami cranes in lieu of reindeer. A very funny, but grumpy Nikkei Santa played by actor and JANM Volunteer Rodney Kageyama appeared with 3 “reindeer” and a sleigh. The night was capped off with participants dancing the Tanko Bushi to the song “Feliz Navidad” played by the Hawaiian band. As I took pictures, I thought to myself that it would be hard to get more multicultural than that!

Night Before Christmas JANM-style

My multicultural holidays continues this week. I’m writing this on Christmas Eve at my in-law’s house in Bakersfield. Tonight we’ll have a nice prime rib roast. Tomorrow morning, we’ll get up early and open presents, then enjoy a big “American” Christmas breakfast. Usually, there’s steak, eggs, sausage, hash browns, juice, champagne, and more. Since we’re having prime rib tonight, I’m not sure whether steak will be on the menu for tomorrow.

In the afternoon, we’ll prepare food and pack up to head to the Omoto family Christmas party where the theme this year will be Mexican. There will be albondigas soup, carne asada, carnitas, enchiladas, tamales, and more. With white elephant gifts in hand, we’ll drive back down to L.A. and catch up on what’s new with the relatives. Poker may be involved (we used to play board games like Pictionary, but more recently it’s changed to Texas hold ‘em).

Tanko Bushi at JANM Holiday Party. December 11, 2009.

Next week, we’ll celebrate New Year’s with a more traditional Oshogatsu celebration (although I’ve been told by my Japanese co-worker that what my family does isn’t exactly right). For this year, I think we may be returning to an old custom—shabu shabu for New Year’s Eve. We had been doing finger foods, and last year there was Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, but I heard that there was discussion at Thanksgiving to return to our old standard. (Hurray!)

Through all these changes, I still find that family and food remain key, and I guess those basic elements are really what’s important in preserving.

I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year!

© 2009 Vicky Murakami-Tsuda

christmas family food holidays multicultural Thanksgiving

About this series

Vicky Murakami-Tsuda is the Communications Production Manager for the Japanese American National Museum. She is a “self-proclaimed” yonsei from Southern California who comes from a large extended family who loves working at JANM (especially Discover Nikkei), eating good food, spending time with family, playing on Facebook, reading, and used to be an artist who explored Japanese American culture and history through her artwork when she had more time and energy. This column includes various reflections on her life and the world around her.