New Year's Day – The Historical Use of Sake
What if I told you that all of your ills and bad lucks to come would go away if you offered somebody a cup of sake? What if I told you that you could make amends for all of your "transgressions" if you offered a cup of sake to a stranger? And what if I told you that you could become as rich and famous as you so desire if you offered a cup of sake to somebody other than yourself? Hmmmmm I am saying that most of you would say show me the bottle!
The history of sake is not as crude as this, but it has always been a mainstay when praying to the gods. Sake has always and will always be an offering of sorts to those greater than ourselves for anything from producing a banner crop this year to having that boy that you always wanted. Most every religion in Japan incorporated the use of sake to make offerings and to bless things, lands, people etc. Sake was and will continue to be the elixir that defines a country's morays and traditions, and it has both an ancient and modern usage.
No other day sees the "need" for sake like New Year's Day. This was the day that fathers would welcome gods into their houses for a sip of sake and humble words. I have not witnessed this act in person, but I have both been told in great detail and have read the typical process to make an effective offering. Essentially the head of the house would put on his best clothes, have a small food offering of high quality, and of course would have an o'choko of sake poured for the arrival of the god. They would first walk around the house speaking about its contents and any stories that the year had provided. Then they would sit for a bit of sake and food. And lastly the cup – sill filled – would be placed in a shrine if the household had one. Sound weird? I don't think so. Don't we all have that imaginary friend that we talk to?
Typically sake is opened the night before on New Year's Eve to celebrate, and what is left over is steeped in herbs for the evening and then served warm on New Year's Day. And yes kids get to have some. (How cool is that?) They celebrate well-being and life appreciation. It is an opportunity to be thankful and to ask for a special favor if needed. All in all it represents another way that sake is meshed into the fabric of Japanese culture and tradition, and it bears trying here in the US.
I say grab a bottle of sake for New Year's eve – if you like the bubbly we have 6 different sparkling sakes – ring in the New Year and then save a little bit for the next day. And whilst watching college football bowl games warm a cup of sake and be thankful!