On the small island where I live in the middle of Japan's Seto Inland Sea, new year celebrations are stalwart traditional. Preparations start a week before when the holiday spirit wafts in on sea breezes tinted with chilling temperatures. The island holds a community rice-pounding event to make kagami mochi adornments for inside our homes and a few businesses set out classic kadomatsu displays — bamboo and pine branches engaged with a shimenawa rope — outside their doors.

Last week, my neighbor Kazuko, who lives alone, gave her house the time-honored year-end cleaning. I helped her bring in the larger-than-normal heated kotatsu table from her store room in anticipation of her three grown offspring, their spouses and the passel of grandchildren coming home for the three-day vacation.

Although New Year's is the nation's most important celebration, it is not a boisterous one, but rather marked with a sedate tone on the scale of Christmas in my own country. O-shōgatsu is a family holiday with proscribed traditions, decorations, special foods and its own benevolent mood. Like Christmas, it treads the line between spiritual and secular, depending on the household.