On Dec. 31st, I visited Ohmiwa Shrine during daytime to greet and express my gratitude for the past year 2017. (well, usually people pay an official visit during the New Year's eve through the new year's day. I just wanted to avoid a huge crowd...to have more silence) In front of the 1st Torii Gate, there was a huge Kadomatsu (門松).
A kadomatsu (門松, "gate pine") is a traditional Japanese decoration as yorishiro of the New Year placed in pairs in front of homes, shrines, and office buildings to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. They are placed after Christmas until January 7 (or January 15 during the Edo period) and are considered temporary housing for kami.
Designs for kadomatsu vary depending on region but are typically made of pine (松）, bamboo (竹）, and sometimes ume （梅）tree sprigs which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness, respectively."
The fundamental function of the New Year ceremonies is to honor and receive the toshigami (年神 deity), who will then bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors' blessing on everyone." After January 15 (or in many instances the 19th) the kadomatsu is burned to release the kami or toshigami with holy fire.
This New Year's bonfire ceremony held around the 15th of January is called as Dondo, Dondo-yaki, Tondo-yaki or Donto-yaki depending on region.
I remember also burning my "new years resolution" hand written with ink and brush on a wash paper when I was a child. They say, if the ashes of the paper go up with the fire flame, then means it is good luck, or one's effort will be fruitful, wish
I imagine all these series of seasonal events and traditions and their meanings have been decayed in big cities, as less and less we have the community bond that used to be strong in the past. At the same time, respect for the ancestors, food (harvest ), kami (deity), land and nature in general is getting less..if not, being forgotten. It is very sad, but it is a fact Japan is facing. In countryside, including Nara, we still keep good amount of traditions.
Still, the New Year for us is the biggest celebration and family gathering time of the year even today. You can enjoy special atmosphere only for this season.
Another obvious fact is, Japanese really love Western culture and Christian related events, as such as Christmas, Halloween, Valentine's Day, etc. According to a trend forecast in 2018 by NHK, "Easter" might be a new attractive event in Spring..???!!! Well, it is clear that commercial reason is very strong, since Japanese love cute (kawaii) things.