Tanabata is a Japanese star festival based on that of the Chinese Qixi Festival [also known as ‘The Night of Sevens’, Magpie Festival, Chilseok [in Korea] and Thất Tịch [in Vietnam].
It celebrates the one day of the year when the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi can meet. They can only meet across the Milky Way on the seventh day of the seventh month. Different regions celebrate Tanabata at different times, but the most recognised date is 7th July, when the first festivities begin. Generally it takes place between July and August, and used to coincide with the Obon, or Bon [lantern] Festival.
The Tanabata Festival originated from another festival called “Kikkōden” [‘The Festival to Plead For Skills’], another name for Qixi, the festival celebrated in China. By the early Edo period this festival had become mixed with various Obon traditions, as that festival was held on the 15th of the seventh month at that time, and it became the Tanabata festival we know today. Traditions associated with Tanabata are different in each region, but in general people [especially children] wrote wishes on strips of paper, with girls wishing for better sewing and craftsmanship, and boys wishing for better handwriting. However, Obon is now held on 15th August, making Tanabata and Obon separate festivals.
The story of Tanabata is inspired by the Chinese folklore story of “The Princess and the Cowherd”. Orihime [‘the weaving princess’] wove clothes made of beautiful cloth by the bank of the Amanogawa [the Milky Way, or ‘heavenly river’]. She worked very hard every day to weave it, because she knew her father Tentei [‘Sky King’, or the universe itself] loved the cloth. But she was sad because even though she was working so hard she would never be able to meet anyone in order to fall in love.
Her father arranged for her to meet the Cow Herder, Hikoboshi [also known as Kengyuu], who lived and worked on the other side of the Milky Way. The two of them instantly fell in love with each other, and married soon after. But after this, Orihime wouldn’t weave cloth for her father anymore and Hikoboshi let his cows wander freely all over Heaven. Orihime’s father grew angry, and forbade them from meeting, separating them across the river.
However, Orihime became extremely upset about being separated from her husband and so, moved by her tears, her father permitted them to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month if she finished her weaving by working hard. But the first time the two lovers tried to meet they discovered that there was no bridge to cross the river. Orihime cried so much that all the world’s magpies came and promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river. It is believed that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies can’t come and the two must wait another year to meet.
In Japan today, most people celebrate Tanabata by writing wishes, sometimes in poetry, on ‘tanzaku’ – small pieces of paper, and hanging them on bamboo or on a tree, sometimes in addition to other decorations. They are often set afloat on a river or burned later on, either at midnight or the next day. This is similar to floating paper ships and candles on rivers for the Obon festival. Decorations can also be seen along streets and in shopping malls, in the form of large streamers.
There are also outdoor stalls selling food and providing carnival games, like for a lot of Japanese festivals. Despite varying from region to region, most celebrations of Tanabata involve decoration competitions, and may include parades and Miss Tanabata contests. In the Kantō region of Japan, the biggest Tanabata festival is held in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa, for the days surrounding July 7th. However, in the Sendai region the largest festival is from 6th August to 8th August. In São Paulo, Brazil, a festival is held around the first weekend of July.
If you choose to celebrate Tanabata, I hope you have a wonderful time, and let’s hope the weather is good so that Orihime and Hikoboshi can meet!
Don’t forget to make a wish!
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