Thursday, July 7, 2011

七夕 Tanabata, The Star Festival

Star-crossed Lovers

In Japan, July 7th marks 七夕 Tanabata, The Star Festival. It’s a popular day, especially with children and has an interesting story attached to it. Once in a far away kingdom in the sky, there lived a beautiful princess, Orihime. The Princess was extremely skilled at weaving, and every day she made the most beautiful cloths and dresses much to the Sky King’s delight. One day when she was out, she met a young, handsome cattle herder, Hikoboshi, tending his livestock. They instantly fell in love. The Sky King approved of the union and they were soon married with his blessing. However, afterwards they both became extremely lazy. The princess no longer made dresses and the young man no longer tended his cattle. They both just lay around together in puppy love heaven. The King became very angry at this and punished them. He separated them and placed them in the sky on opposite sides of the Milky Way. And there they remain and only have the chance to meet but once a year on Tanabata. As there is no bridge across the Milky Way, a flock of magpies comes to bear up the lovers so they can meet If the sky is clear on that night, they meet. If it’s cloudy, the magpies won’t come and they must wait one more year. The moral of the story; do your chores. Actually, this legend originally comes from China and the princess and her husband are real stars, Vega and Alstair on either side of the Milky way.

The main activity associated with Tanabata is the putting up of a large bamboo branch with leaves, which is then trimmed with beautiful, foil and paper decorations. It’s also a wishing day and people write wishes to the Sky King on long strips of colorful paper and hang them on the tree. Many English schools have them and their students write their wish in English. Traditionally, on the day after Tanabata, the bamboo trees are set float down the river, or placed on the river bank and allowed to fall into the water naturally. Sometimes they are burned. There are no big celebrations in the area where I live, but in other parts of Japan, the festival can be quite large, especially in Sendai in Northern Japan. If you can’t find any real bamboo, have no fear. Department stores sell little Tanabata tree kits usually made of cardboard or plastic, complete with decorations. If you don’t want the trouble, then many places like stores, hotels, and community centers have trees set up with blank strips of paper free for patrons. They are kind of pretty, especially the foil decorations, but when I see them, I can’t help thinking of the skinny little Christmas tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

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