Kadomatsu and the Friends of Winter

Happy 2021! If you’ve visited the Gardens recently, you may have noticed a singular container arrangement at the south entrance to the Island Garden. This Kadomatsu represents our homage to the new year, serving to welcome all who visit to our Japanese-themed Island Garden.

The New Year (shogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. They shut down businesses and gather together to celebrate, throwing a bonenkai to forget the year past (hmm, any takers on this one?) and look to the new year for a fresh start.

Preparations for the New Year (oshogatsu) begin in mid-December with “greeting the pine,” or Matsu-Mukae. Nobles in the Heian period began a tradition of selecting pine boughs from the wild to form the Kadomatsu, or gate pine, at the entrances to homes, businesses and shrines. The dwelling was to be cleansed, purified, and decorated to make the God of the incoming year, Toshigami Sama, welcome so they will bless the family with abundant harvest and happiness in the New Year. Toshigami do not like impurities, so sacred Shinto rope (often used in Japan to mark something as sacred) is incorporated into decorations to signal the dwelling is clean. There is something to be said for wrapping up one’s duties and reordering one’s life so one can approach a new year freshly; I do not know about you, but I certainly could use it.

Trees are traditionally viewed to be the dwellings of gods. Pines (especially Japanese black pine), or “matsu,” are linked to the word matsuru (enshrined), and are a main component of kadomatsu, to either serve as yorishiro (temporary repositories) for the visiting gods or as guideposts/a means of transportation down from heaven to the home. You would not want all that good fortune and blessing to pass you by simply because Toshigami cannot find your house. 

Various plant materials make up these decorations for several symbolic reasons. Plants symbolize life and rebirth, and freshly budding plants are seen as a sign of good fortune and fresh beginnings. Pine and bamboo in particular symbolize perseverance, and a desire to obtain virtue and strength in overcoming adversity. Kadomatsu may also display Japanese plum (Ume), which blooms in February or March, often in the midst of snow. It has significance to the Japanese, represented in art and poetry, marking of the coming of spring and the end of hard winters. It is a tough plant, blooming under such harsh conditions! Plum, together with pine and bamboo, are called the Three Friends of Winter. Lastly, three bamboo, cut to different lengths, are said to symbolize heaven, earth and man, according to some sources. 

Kadomatsu are displayed for a short duration sometime after December 13th to around January 7 or 15th (depending on the region and other factors) when the displayers of such decorations are encouraged to take their arrangements to a local shrine or other designated wide open space to burn in an event called Dondo Yaki, which wishes for happiness in the new year.

Wellfield’s Kadomatsu incorporates pines, bamboo, winterberry, dried flower heads and red twig dogwood, along with an ornamental kale. Pine boughs and bamboo were selected for the traditional reasons, while the additional material highlights the winter season and the seeds of a new beginning. Altogether, the arrangement celebrates life, renewal and the bounty of nature, all things Wellfield Botanic Gardens wishes for all of our members and guests in the coming year. Check it out when you visit this month!

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager, Wellfield Botanic Gardens

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