While I find early spring a feminine time of year, for me, May is very much a masculine month – a time for celebrating the Great God in all His incarnations. Certainly Beltane is quite a “manly” Sabbat, with its maypoles and Green Man and Horned God imagery. But in Japan on May 5th, there’s another festival that’s all about celebrating boys and men that shares some similarities with Beltane, and that is Kodomo no Hi.
Kodomo no Hi is often translated as “Children’s Day” in English, and although in modern times it’s meant to be a day celebrating all children, in the past it was specifically about praying for the health and strength of boys and men (don’t worry, the girls aren’t left out – they get their own festival, Hina Matsuri, in March). As a result, most of the symbols associated with Kodomo no Hi relate to masculinity. Families may display ornamental kabuto (samurai helmets) in their homes, symbolising bravery and fighting spirit, or perhaps a doll of Kintarō, a legendary boy hero who wrestled bears and fought demons. Interestingly, one of the traditional foods eaten at Kodomo no Hi is kashiwa-mochi, which are rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves. For many Pagans in the West, the oak is also a symbol of masculinity and of Beltane, as they represent the Oak King who flourishes in spring and summer.
But the most prominent symbol of all at Kodomo no Hi is the koi carp. The koi has deep significance in Japan and strong connections with masculinity. It is often paired with Kintarō, as legend says that Kintarō battled a giant koi. Additionally, it is said that if a carp swims upstream, it will eventually turn into a dragon – a creature representing great power and nobility in Asia. The koi is therefore an emblem of strength, growth and perseverance through challenges – all good qualities for boys.
It must also be pointed out that the koi has a phallic shape, and this is reinforced by the practice of erecting koi-nobori outside homes and in public places in April and May in Japan. Koi-nobori are koi-shaped streamers, rather like wind socks, that are suspended from tall poles so that they blow in the wind and look like they’re swimming in the air. The koi at the top is normally the biggest and often black in colour, and he represents the father – the head of the family. The koi then decrease in size, representing each son (or child) in the family – these are usually red or blue. They may be accompanied by other colourful streamers, and the overall effect looks remarkably like a European May Pole – which is also considered a phallic symbol and is associated with children.
As a Shinto-Pagan, I celebrate Kodomo no Hi together with Beltane, as I find that the overlapping symbolism means that the two festivals work really well together. I use this time to honour the male Gods (especially the Green Man, who is associated both with May Day and St George’s Day on April 23rd), and to pray for the health and happiness of all the men in my life. Last year, I even blessed a tiny koi-nobori and gave it to my young nephews; they’re both growing up to be very healthy and happy boys, so I hope the Gods keep smiling down on them!
References & Further Reading