Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How the Japanese Celebrate Legends of the Milky Way During the Annual Star Festival

Each year on the seventh day of the seventh month, Japanese people all over the country gather together for what is called Tanabata, or the Star Festival. 

The Japanese festival originates from a traditional Chinese festival known as the Qixi Festival. It is purposed to celebrate the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are represented by the stars Vega and Altair. The annual holiday is filled with traditions and rich cultural celebrations, beginning on July 7th. 

Today, people celebrate this day by writing goals and wishes on small pieces of paper and hanging them on decorated bamboo. The various decorations and bamboo sticks are then set afloat on a river or burned after the festivities have concluded. This traditional Japanese custom is similar to Obon traditions, where people place floating paper ships and candles in rivers. There is a range of customs celebrated in Japan today for the Star Festival, depending on the region. In addition to the bamboo sticks, common decorations that can be seen during the holiday are colorful streamers, casting nets called Toami, and Kinchaku bags. The streamers are said to symbolize the “weaving of threads”, the casting net is to bring good luck to farmers and fishermen, and the Kinchaku bag symbolizes wealth.
The festival’s origins can be traced back to the legend of the Cowherd Star (Altair) as well as the Weaver Star (or Vega). The stars were said to be separated by the milky way and only permitted to meet one a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. Another legend behind the holiday is the tale of Kikkoden, which dates back over 2,000 years ago. The legend says that there was a weaver princess named Orihime and a cow herder prince named Hikoboshi. They fell so deeply in love and were so distracted by one another’s presence that they began neglecting their jobs. The king was so furious that he used the Milky Way to separate them, only allowing them to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month.  

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Chinese Are Getting Ready for this Year's Dragon Boat Festival on June 20th

Father’s Day is right around the corner, but in China another very important holiday is coming up as well. Every year on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the Chinese observe what is called The Dragon Boat Festival. Over the years the holiday has required several different names including the Tuen Ng Festival, the Duanwu Festival, and the Double Fifth Festival. For 2015, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month falls on June 20th, which is when the festival will take place. 

As with most Chinese holidays, there are many traditions associated with this festival, one of which is found within the name of the festival- dragon boats and dragon boat racing. Dragon boat racing is a team water sport that has been a part of ancient folk rituals for almost 2,000 years. Racing boats carved to look like dragons began as a ceremonial and religious tradition, but has since become an enjoyable and competitive form of sport and entertainment. 

The timing of the holiday is important as well. It is an ancient belief in China that the summer solstice and dragons are connected by a common energy. The Chinese traditionally connect the sun to a masculine energy and the moon to a feminine energy. Like the sun, dragons are also thought to possess a strong masculine energy. At the summer solstice, the sun is thought to be at its strongest, thus having the strongest masculine energy. Therefore, using the symbol of dragons during the summer solstice is thought to symbolize masculine energy, strength, and power at its highest point. 
Although racing dragon boats is the symbol of the holiday, there are other traditional activities done by families during this time. Some of which include hanging up icons of a mythical guardian named Zhong Kui, hanging mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, and a game of trying to make an egg stand at exactly noon- if your efforts are met with success you are thought to have a year of good luck ahead of you. Like many Chinese traditions, these activities are performed in regards to the ancient villager’s beliefs that they would ward off disease and promote good health and spiritual well-being. 

And of course no Chinese holiday is complete without eating and drinking. The traditional food consumed on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is zongzi, a Chinese dish made of rice, stuffed with various fillings, and then carefully wrapped in bamboo or reed. Then the zongzi is washed down with realgar wine. 

To find the book series that inspires these stories, click here