Tag Archives: festivals

Tanabata – The Japanese Star Festival

Image from Wikimedia commons

For Americans around the world, July 4th is always a day of celebration, and here in Washington, DC, the sky is always lit every year with fireworks. On the other side of the world, however, a few days from now another celestial celebration will take place, and for many people in asian countries, wishes will be sent up to the heavens on the evening of July 7th.

Image from Wikimedia commons

In Japan July 7th is when the festival Tanabata is celebrated. The Star Festival, as it is usually known, has its basis in Asian folklore primarily native to East Asian countries. While the celebrations that take place in contemporary Japan are uniquely representative of Japanese culture, the festival itself is Chinese in origin. The Chinese festival is known as Qixi.

Image from The Nihon Sun

The story of Tanabata is the story of two lovers who can only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. In the myth, the king of heaven had a daughter, Orihime, who was a weaver. Because she worked so hard to create the cloth, she could not meet any suitors. Her father then arranged her to meet Hikoboshi,  a suitor who lived on the other side of the river Amanogawa. When the two met, they instantly fell in love and married; however their marriage brought chaos to their heavenly kingdom. The king of heaven separated them, thus allowing them only to meet one day a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that on this day, the lovers’ constellations shine brightest.

Image from X3 Magazine

Celebrations in Japan for Tanabata involve the writing of wishes on vertical strips of paper, usually in the form of poetry. The wishes are then hung on trees, usually of bamboo. Sometimes artificial trees are made to become wishing trees because in most cases the trees are set afloat on a river or burned so the wishes can be carried off to the heavens. The festival is usually anticipated by young women who have romantic wishes due to the folklore behind it. Hence it is also known as the “Lovers’ Festival.”

Image from Tokyo ezine

In contemporary Japan, the Sendai Tanabata festival is probably the largest and most well-known celebration in the eastern part of the country. It is one of the three largest summer festivals and a major tourist attraction.

Photo by Michael Tonge. From A Billion Voices.

During the festival, seven types of paper decorations are usually put out to symbolize the different types of wishes that people can send to the heavens. The most famous type of decoration and today most synonymous with the festival is the large ornamental ball with streamers. The decoration itself was a contemporary addition to the traditional paper wishes conceived in the 1940’s by merchants in Sendai. The strips of paper hanging represent the cloth that Orihime would weave.

Image from Pint4Japan

Photo by Josep M. Berengueras

While the most common wishes during the season are for love, health, and prosperity, you can of course, wish for anything on this special day. Do you know what you’ll wish for this year?

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The Summer Solstice

Image by Cat-Art via Heritage Key

In many countries in the Northern Hemisphere, summer is officially marked by the occurrence of the Summer Solstice, which is the longest day of the year. Although the actual dates vary between cultures, it typically occurs in the third week of June, around June 20th to the 24th.

In Northern Europe, where it is the second most celebrated holiday apart from Christmas, the solstice originated as an indigenous festival. Although the solstice marks the start of astronomical summer, in most traditions it is marks midsummer, or the start of the warmest months. After the medieval period, it became related to the feast day of St. John the Baptist in countries that are predominantly Christian.

Like any major holiday, various festivities take place during the solstice that are unique to each region and country. Similarly, in other parts of the world, many countries also have festivals during this time, which celebrate the start of the new season with their own cultural practices.


Midsummer bonfire in Finland. Image from Wikimedia commons.

The summer solstice is a widely celebrated holiday throughout the countries in Scandinavia. Each country has its own festivities, but there are a few commonalities in the celebrations. For instance, the lighting of bonfires is a common festivity, which in ancient times were believed to ward off evil spirits that roamed the earth when the sun faced southward.

Image from Study in Sweden

Maypole dancing is a popular festivity in these northern regions, perhaps in Sweden more than the other countries. Maypoles are part of the old traditions and folklore of Scandinavia and other Germanic regions (Such as Norse mythology, where the universe is believed to be a giant tree), and usually children take part in the dances.

Quebec – St. Jean

People take to the streets during the St. Jean Baptiste Festival.
Image from The Long Habit of Living.

In the French Canadian region, the holiday is celebrated in line with the feast day of St. John the Baptist, brought over by the French Colonists. Today it is celebrated as a secular National Holiday, taking place on June 24th. Similar to the practices in Scandinavia, lighting bonfires is part of the traditional celebrations on the eve of June 24th.

San Juan Town Festival

Image from Pilipinas Travel Guide

On the other side of the world, in a city in the capital region of the Philippines, the midsummer tradition that is quite literally the opposite from the European ones. Instead of lighting great fires, people douse each other with water, splashing about the streets of the city of San Juan in Manila. During this day people take to the streets armed with buckets of water and hoses, leaving no shirt dry. It relates to the Roman Catholic tradition of baptism, and the feast of St. John the Baptist.

Duan Wu (Chinese Dragon Boat)

Image from Sarah Sanderson Wanderlust

In China, the midsummer season and summer solstice is celebrated with the racing of dragon boats. In chinese mythology, the dragon represents masculine energy, just as the sun does. Since the solstice is considered the peak time of year for masculine energy, the dragon consequently became associated with the festival. Apart from the tradition of racing the boats, rituals are performed that are said to promote health and vitality as well.

For many others however, the summer solstice is simply an opportunity to enjoy the day longer than usual. Whether you celebrate the solstice or not, its passing heralds the warmest months of the year, and hopefully a fun-filled season for us all. Happy Summer everyone!

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Mid-Autumn Means Mooncake!

It’s Foodie Tuesday!

Mooncakes ready for the oven. Image by Intercontinental Hong Kong.

Growing up in the Philippines, I remember fondly how our family would receive mooncakes from our family friends around September. While our family is not Filipino-Chinese at all, the tradition of giving mooncakes is still popular among families, and we usually receive one or two boxes a year.

Mooncakes from Kien Giang Bakery in LA.

I never really thought about mooncakes back then beyond the fact they came in brightly colored tins, looked like large stamps, and had a sweet pasty filling. I also had no idea that the mooncake giving tradition was also linked to a cultural celebration, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.

The festival is usually celebrated today in China and Vietnam, with regions in each of the countries celebrating their own traditions accompanying the main celebration. Common festivites include eating mooncakes, matchmaking, the use of lanterns and fire dragon dances. The festival pays homage to the moon goddess for a good harvest (the festival traditionally marks the end of the autumn harvest).

Lights in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There is a legend attributed to the Mid-Autumn Festival, which tells the story of the deities Houyi and Chang’e. As with any legend there are several interpretations, but each version usually follows a basic storyline.

Houyi and Chang’e were a married couple, and embody the principle of Yin and Yang. As a reward for his service to the emperor, Houyi recieved a pill that would grant him immortality, but he could only take it after preparing himself for a year. He hid it in their home, but one day Chang’e discovered it, took it, and realizing what she had done, immediately fled to the moon.

A paper cut illustration of Chang’e flying to the moon

Despite his efforts to chase after her, Houyi had to return to earth because strong winds. Upon reaching the moon, Chang’e coughed up part of the pill and could not fly anymore. In order for her to return to her husband she commanded the jade rabbit on the moon to pound herbs for another pill, but the rabbit is unsuccessful and continues to try to make the pill. Houyi then built himself a palace in the sun and visits his wife once a year on the date of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Outside of large Chinese communities however the Mid-Autumn festival is really all about the mooncakes. The cakes themselves are made from a molasses-sweetened dough, which is wrapped around several types of sweet filling. Common fillings include lotus paste and duck egg yolk, and red bean paste.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The cakes themselves are usually round, but in recent years there have been plenty of variations in their shapes and sizes. Some mooncakes today are also not made of the traditional dough and use jelly on the outside. Likewise, the mold patterns that appear on the top of the mooncakes have evolved from the traditional Chinese motifs, with bakeries and mooncake manufacturers putting their own unique pattern on the cakes.

I found a few interesting examples of mooncake patterns and designs, including a Hello Kitty version, and a tiramisu mooncake made by Starbucks.

Photo by Mini Eman

Photo by Flickr user hartini

I didn’t get to eat any mooncake this year but next year I’ll be sure to take a trip to my local Chinese bakery for some of these treats! For the more adventurous epicurean, there are also several sites online for people who want to try to make their own.

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