tradition

Celebrating Boys in Japan

After the Nagaizumi-Whanganui Sister City Friendship Centre closed in 2015, the Whanganui Regional Museum received a donation of many of the objects it had housed. Cataloguing these objects required some research into Japanese culture and traditions.

1. Lacquered box

The lacquered box. Ref: 2015.32.51g

One of the most intriguing is a beautiful black lacquered box which has a fitted removable lid and six legs with five sides. Each leg has a brass cap engraved with leaves on four outer edges. All corners have etched brass corner protectors. The inside of the box is lined with patterned white paper. It contains a Gogatsu Ningyo, a samurai warrior doll complete with an elaborately decorated tachi (sword), a yumi (bow and arrow) and two folding lacquered screens, also with decorative corners. There was also a wooden plaque with Japanese characters and a length of green cotton felt with a flowered silk brocade border.

2. Samurai doll

The Gogatsu Ningyo, Samurai doll. Ref: 2015.32.51a

Putting the doll together was a little complicated as he came in many pieces. A head is covered by an ornamented helmet, shoulder plates, shin guards, upper leg plates and fur boots. He sits on a lacquered pedestal.

In Japan, Gogatsu Ningyo are used on 5 May every year at the Tango-no-Sekku festival, to wish for the healthy growth of boys. The armour, helmet, sword and bow and arrows were once worn by brave warriors and hence the desire for strength and good health. This tradition originated in a ritual using sweet calamus (a plant used both medicinally and to make fragrances), held at the Japanese Imperial Court more than 1,200 years ago to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that sweet calamus had strong power because it was among the first plants to sprout in early spring. Later in the feudal era, this ritual evolved into a ceremony to pray for good fortune for boys and success in wars, and then gradually spread among the common people as a festival for children.

Families with sons also celebrate this day by flying carp-shaped streamers called koinobori. In Japan, carp are known to be strong fish that can leap up waterfalls. The koinobori symbolise parents’ wishes for their sons to be as strong as carp. The Museum also received two windsocks as part of the donation. They are each three metres long and painted in shades of blue and pink. In Japan today, koinobori are commonly flown above the roofs of houses where children live, along with the biggest black koinobori, coloured black, for the father, the next biggest, in red or pink for the mother and an additional smaller carp of a different colour for each child in decreasing order by age.

 

Kathy Greensides is a Collection Assistant at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Christmas Cake

Christmas. A time for family, gifts, religious observation, and of course food. And what would be better to complete the feast than a Christmas cake?

The traditional Christmas cake, as we know it today, began life as a plum porridge. Porridge was traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve as a way to line the stomach after a day of fasting in preparation for the Christmas feast. Porridge isn’t the most exciting of foods, unadorned as it is, and certainly not a celebratory meal. Soon it was smartened up with the addition of spices, representing the exotic gifts from the Three Wise Men, honey and plums or dried fruit. This mixture was then wrapped in a cloth and boiled, and hence the Christmas pudding was born.

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Packet of fruit cake mix like this are very popular in the lead-up to Christmas (TH.3669)

This was the base recipe for an Easter dish as well, with a few additions. In the 16th century people would prepare a Christmas pudding mix, but also add wheat flour and eggs to a portion of the base to create a cake for consumption at Easter time. Over time, the oatmeal was removed from the recipe, as was the meat that was often included, and more butter, eggs, and wheat flour were added. This helped the mixture to hold together much better than the sloppy gruel and dense puddings previously experienced. Wealthy families that could afford an oven baked their mixture which produced a different consistency again, resulting in a firmer cake, which over time was dropped from the Easter menu but has remained a Christmas favourite.

The addition of marzipan and royal icing came later when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers, concerned with excess, banned feasting on 5 January, observed as the last day of the Christmas celebrations. Instead, people made a special Twelfth Night Christmas cake which was laden with almonds and covered in marzipan, and feasted on that instead.

Christmas cakes are traditionally made on “stir-up Sunday”, the last Sunday before Advent; this year it was Sunday 20 November. The cake is then kept upside down and “fed” with brandy or whiskey every week before being eaten at Christmas. The alcohol and sugar act as preservatives and give the spices a chance to develop and fully infuse the cake with festive flavours.

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Edmonds encouraged people to make Christmas cakes and provided a recipe, as per this advertisement from the Wanganui Chronicle on 5 December 1952 (2003.39.123)

Christmas cakes come in a wide a variety as presents; large, small, heavy, light, rich, meagre, soft, firm, wrapped or unwrapped. There are regional and local variations all over the world for this festive treat. The Scots make a Christmas Dundee cake which is light and crumbly, full of dried fruit, and of course, whiskey. A Japanese Christmas cake is a sponge with icing, decorated with chocolate and strawberries or other fruit. Philippine people use either a traditional English cake or a yellow pound cake with added nuts, which is then soaked in brandy and palm sugar syrup. Those in Yorkshire often don’t ice their Christmas cake, preferring to eat it with Wensleydale or cheddar cheese.

If you feel like getting back to basics, here is a 1701 recipe for a Christmas pottage:

Take of Beef-soup made of Legs of Beef, 12 Quarts; if you wish it to be particularly good, add a couple of Tongues to be boil’d therein. Put fine Bread, slic’d, soak’d, and crumbled; Raisins of the Sun, Currants and Pruants two Lbs. of each; Lemons, Nutmegs, Mace and Cleaves are to be boil’d with it in a muslin Bag; add a Quart of Red Wine and let this be follow’d, after half an Hour’s boyling, by a Pint of Sack.  Put it into a cool Place and it will keep through.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.