Throughout July, people in Japan will be gazing skyward as part of the celebrations for Tanabata, a summer celebration often called the “Star Festival” in English.
“Tanabata” is written with the characters 七夕, which literally means “seven-evening.” The number seven is significant for Tanabata; in modern times it is held on July 7th, the seventh day of the seventh month. It’s a festival that is not unique to Japan and is celebrated in China as Qixi, and in Korea as Chilseok (but in these countries it’s actually on the seventh month according to the Chinese/Korean calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar). Although Tanabata traditions vary from country to country, all the festivals centre around the same basic story: the old Chinese tale of the Weaver Star and the Cowherd Star.
The Story of Tanabata
There are a number of versions of the Tanabata story, but this is the one I have heard the most often. Long ago, Orihime the Weaver Star was charged with making beautiful cloth for her father Tentei, the Emperor of Heaven. But one day, she met Hikoboshi the Cowherd Star. The two fell deeply in love and were so obsessed with each other that they neglected their duties – Orihime stopped making the wondrous cloth, and Hikoboshi neglected his cows. Angry, Tentei separated the lovers, forcing them to live on opposite sides of Amanogawa, the River of Heaven. Orihime was distraught and begged her father to relent. Eventually, Tentei felt sorry for his daughter, and decreed that once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, they would be allowed to cross Amanogawa and meet each other. The annual reunion of the lovers on July 7th became Tanabata.
Like many great myths and legends, this story has some basis in natural phenomena. The Weaver Star and the Cowherd Star are based on real stars, known as Vega and Altair in the English-speaking world. They are particularly visible in the summer months in the northern hemisphere, as is the Milky Way – which is the Amanogawa, “River of Heaven,” in Japanese.
At Tanabata, it is customary to decorate bamboo with bright paper ornaments. This might include origami cranes, paper kimono and kusudama paper baubles. But the most well-known decorations are tanzaku. Tanzaku are coloured strips of paper upon which people write their wishes before hanging them on bamboo. The night winds will then blow the wishes up into the heavens, where they may be granted. It is traditional for the tanzaku to be removed the next day and either set afloat in a river or cremated.
The custom of making wishes or offering prayers by decorating trees is certainly not unique to Japan; very similar traditions exist here in the UK too. There are clootie wells, in which a piece of cloth is immersed in a sacred spring or well, and then hung on a nearby tree in order to grant healing, good luck, and the blessings of the spirit of the well and the tree. The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree, which is now found throughout the world, may also have its origins in the idea of making wishes by hanging items on a tree as offerings to nature spirits.
Tanabata has become an annual tradition in my household. My wedding and handfasting took place less than a week after Tanabata, so on July 7th before our wedding my husband and I hung seven tanzaku (made from paper luggage tags) on the bushes outside our house, each one with a word to describe what we wished for in our marriage. We now repeat this every year as an anniversary custom – it’s a lovely way to bring back memories of our first wedding and to wish for continuing blessings in our lives.
Why not hold your own Tanabata celebrations this July? It’s a lot of fun for children and adults alike. You could easily adapt the tradition to your own path by invoking appropriate deities related to trees or stars, or by consecrating the tanzaku before hanging them, for example. Just be mindful of the natural environment when making offerings in nature – like the Japanese traditionally do after Tanabata, you should perhaps consider removing the tanzaku a day or so after hanging them, and dispose of them responsibly. Whatever you decide to do, have a wonderful Tanabata and I hope all your wishes come true!
References and further reading