Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Hina-matsuri or Festival of Peach Blossoms

Any one aware of my life-long love of dolls probably would be surprised that I chose to write about the Martisor traditions before posting any information about the Japanese Hina-matsuri Festival of Dolls.

In Japan, on the 3rd of March, the Festival of Peach Blossoms or 'Girls' Festival' is celebrated. Originally a Shinto festival, it has become a secular tradition in Japan. 'Hina' dolls dressed in the costumes of the ancient rulers of Japan are displayed on a dais covered with red carpet from the end of February until the 3rd of March. 'Tea parties' are held with special food ostensibly prepared for the dolls but consumed by the young girls. Peach blossoms, special sweet rice cakes and
white wine are the traditional offerings placed before the hina dolls.

In some places, there are ceremonies wherein dolls are placed in boats and set adrift on the water. Through this act, illness and bad fortune was assumed by the dolls rather than the owners. In another variation of this ancient form of magic, the dolls were burned.

Dolls made of paper, using the origami technique often are placed in tiny boats that are set afloat. The Japanese Harvest Moon game, Magical Melody, includes a festival called the Star Festival that probably was based on Hina-matsuri. At the Star Festival, wishes are placed in boats that are set afloat on the river.

The most ancient form of the festival probably was similar to the European festivals at the beginning of March, wherein people bade farewell to the old year or Winter by burning a figure, throwing it in the river or driving it from the village.

It originally was the custom for men, women and children alike to make dolls from paper, transferring their illness, pain and misfortune to the dolls, then casting them into the nearest river or stream.

Even now, at Awashima Shrine on the 3rd of March, the 'Momo no Sekku' or Peach Blossom Festival is celebrated by placing hina dolls into a small boat and sending the dolls off to sea from the Kada shore. Through this act, they are cleansed of 'kegare' (defilement) and 'byoma' (evil disease). On the 8th of February each year, a similar service is held at the same shrine for unwanted sewing needles.

Later in the Edo period, the custom of displaying hina dolls dressed as an ancient emperor, empress and their entourage supplanted the older custom in most places. The traditional number of dolls displayed on the dais is 15. The Dairi-sama, representing the Emperor and Empress traditionally are attended by two ministers, three court ladies (kanjo) and five court musicians. The display can be created at the end of February but should not be kept after 3 March. Showing respect and homage to the ancestors is a Shinto tradition and one of the foundations of the religion.

The Hina-matsuri Festival is the day on which parents demonstrate their hopes for the future of their daughters. It is said that if one leaves the dolls on display after 3 March, the future marriage of the girl will be delayed; thus, the festival is one of making wishes for a happy marriage for every girl.

During the period before the Second World War, the Hina-matsuri Festival was a day on which girls were allowed to have their own party, inviting their friends for a 'tea party' with their dolls. Instead of tea, however, they were allowed to drink a mild sweet rice wine called shiro-zake.

The traditional diamond-shaped cake prepared for the Festival is called hishi mochi or sakura mochi. It is a rice cake filled with sweet bean paste. It is interesting to note that beans always have been part of ancient New Year celebrations in the month of March. The bean symbolises a link between this world and the next, and often was included in funerary offerings throughout the ancient world. The old folktale of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' originally was a story about a 'ladder to heaven', a means by which a shaman could reach the Other realm.

Food offerings for Hina-matsuri often are coloured red. The sweet beans used in the hishi moshi are red, in fact. Red is an auspicious colour for the New Year in every culture.

Although it is known as the 'Peach Blossom Festival', peach trees do not flower this early in the year. Like the Martisor, therefore, this festival anticipates the Spring and is a declaration of hope in the future.

Dollhouses always have appealed to people, but they originally had a religious significance. The ancient Egyptians included entire cities in miniature in their tombs, believing that the scenes depicted would become real in the afterlife. The ancient Romans had their household gods, and sometimes these would be displayed much like the hina dolls in Japan. When I visited Thailand as a child, I was entranced by the beautiful 'spirit houses' that could be seen outside every temple and many private homes as well. What is considered child's play in contemporary Western society has deep roots in universal spiritual traditions. The idea that one can maintain an unbroken and even powerful connection to the past through remembrance of ancestors or heroes is very appealing. Some 'monotheistic' religions are extremely hostile to the concept of 'idols', but representations of gods, saints, heroes and ancestors are focal points for spiritual power and that power is not intrinsically negative nor is it 'evil' in any sense. In any event, it would be a very small, very insecure 'god' who would be threatened by a statue or doll! I always felt that the old Hebrew prohibition against 'idols' was absurd and could have nothing to do with any true directive from a real God.

My mother once confessed to me that she could find peace and relief from anxiety in the simple act of cleaning the dollhouse. It is absolutely true. Entering into a miniature world that can be brought into order and perfection in a relatively brief period of time can be a form of spiritual meditation. Coupled with aesthetic appreciation is a sense of control and completion. When our real lives often are messy, our ambitions unfulfilled or at least incomplete, concentration on a microcosm like a dollhouse can be very therapeutic. I believe that the 'zen rock garden' provides a similar outlet for people.

Even if divorced from any spiritual significance, the hina dolls are considered heirlooms, to be passed from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. In this fashion, the heritage of Japan is preserved.


dr.alistair said...

all men dream......

thanks for posting that quote.

perfect timing.

Fleming said...

This post is very informative for me, and I'm particularly intrigued by the practice of transferring one's troubles to a doll or paper and sending it away. In a blog by a Chinese lady (Pink Ginger), I recently read about superstitions relating to Chinese New Year, and I remarked how interesting it was that all the superstitions she mentioned involved NOT sweeping or throwing things away on New Year Day because one might get rid of the good luck that the New Year otherwise had in store. I thought that was a nice bit of optimism: Instead of doing things to attract good fortune, they assume it's there and take care not to sweep it away. Do you know if that's an unusual attitude?

I was also impressed by what you said about the benefits of concentrating on cleaning a dollhouse. That paragraph is extremely insightful. I glean that the practice of bringing order to a microcosm makes us feel more comfortable in the macrocosm. As below, so above, to reverse an axiom.

Thank you!

Freyashawk said...

I thought I had mentioned the Chinese traditional practice of sweeping everything into the centre of the room at the New Year, rather than sweeping it out the door. In any case, it is NOT an unusual practice by any means but is found almost universally in cultures throughout the world.

A similar belief is the use of ashes for good fortune or protection. The ashes of the Palms from Palm Sunday are used the following year. In the same fashion, the ashes from the Holi fire in India are used as 'tika'.

Elemental magic is one of the more powerful forms of magic and still is the foundation even of cultural practices in the West. In fact, the choice of burial or cremation of a body after death originally was based on elemental magic.

Two conflicting beliefs: Ashes 'fly' directly to heaven. The body, decaying in the earth, becomes part of the Earth, returning to the Great Goddess.

Christianity supported the idea of burial ostensibly in the belief that the body itself would be resurrected, but early Christians in England and elsewhere attempted to combine the two traditions with burial, followed by partial cremation.

The practice of Baptism is elemental magic in its purest form. Purification by water is another universal concept.

As far as sweeping is concerned, the broom always has been a symbol and a tool of traditional magic in many cultures. The idea of the witch on her broomstick is not a mere artistic fancy. The broom is a potent tool, not only in purification ceremonies but in 'sex magic' as well.

Many books have been written on customs that deal with purification by sweeping, water, earth or fire.

Fundamentally, most customs relating to a 'New Year' deal with making new beginnings. In order to begin anew, one must lay the old to rest.