Celebrating Tanabata – the Japanese star festival

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Tanabata, also known as the star festival, takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. It celebrates the coming together of two stars – Altair and Vega – who are normally separated by the Milky Way.

The festival dates back to more than 2,000 years ago and takes its roots from a Chinese legend called Qixi. It was brought to Japan in the 8th century.

According to legend, a seamstress called Princess Orihime wove beautiful clothes by a heavenly river. She fell deeply in love with Hikoboshi, a cow herder who lived on the other side of the Milky Way. Both became so devoted to one another that they neglected their duties and this angered Orihime’s father, who was God of the heavens.

As punishment, he forbade the two lovers from seeing each other, but Orihime begged her father to change his mind. It was then agreed that the two lovers could meet once a year – on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that if it rains on this day, the lovers will not be able to meet and will have to wait another year. Therefore, during Tanabata, those celebrating the festival wish for good weather.

Tanabata is celebrated around the globe on different dates, with some marking the occasion in July and others in August.  

Traditional customs

It is customary during Tanabata for people to write their wishes on small strips of paper (called tanzaku) and hang them on a bamboo tree in the hope that they’ll come true.

Apart from tanzaku, other decorations such as paper cranes, kimonos, nets, streamers and purses also hang from bamboo trees. Each of the decorations is a wish for something specific – for example, paper kimonos are said to ward off bad health and purses are said to be fortuitous for business.

Ideas to celebrate Tanabata at your setting

  • Make your own tanzaku to hang in the classroom
  • Create a bamboo wish tree
  • Tell the story of Altair and Vega to your children
  • Talk about star constellations and the Milky Way
  • Make and share traditional foods such as Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes
  • Explore traditional festival clothing worn in Japan, such as yukata (summer version of
    a kimono)
  • Make paper kimonos and other decorations to hang on wish trees

Are you celebrating Tanabata in your setting this year? If so, send us some photos of what you did to mark the occasion and we’ll feature these in the next edition of the Parenta magazine.

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