In Japan, July 7 was originally called the Day of the Loom or the Festival of the Loom. (In Japanese the loom is called 棚織 and pronounced “tanabata.”) In historic Japan a cleansing ritual was enacted in which maidens wove a kimono, placed it on a shelf, and greeted the gods, praying for a good harvest and other favors. This joint prayer day evolved into a festival. According to Japanese records Loom festivals were held in the Imperial court already in 691 AD, in a ceremony borrowed from China.
In China, the original ceremony was called 七夕 (the modern Japanese pronunciation is still “tanabata”). According to the Chinese tale, once upon a time there lived a cowherd prince and a weaver princess. They fell in love and instead of caring for the cattle and weaving they lived only for one another. The Lord of the Heavens saw this and grew terribly angry, separating the lovers and turning them into stars that were very distant from one another. The lovers became so sad that the Lord of the Heavens decided to allow them to meet once a year, on July 7 (the 7th day of the 7th month), on the night of Tanabata, by crossing the Milky Way. The people, to help the weaver princess and the cowherd prince meet, and to make some lovely kimonos, got together each year to pray for them. This was the basis of the festival in China.
The Japanese Tanabata Festival known today is a mixture of the Chinese and Japanese legends. Japanese children watch the stars and pray. They use colored paper, paper streamers, fishnet shaped paper ornaments, and lanterns.
- They write the wishes they want to see fulfilled on the colored paper.
- They use the paper streamers to wish for a beautiful kimono.
- They prepare the fishnet ornament to wish for a huge catch of fish.
- The lanterns are to wish that everyone be joyous.
Another important material used for the decorations is bamboo, to which they attach the paper ornaments. At home, when I asked my daughter to write her wishes onto the paper strip, she wished for “a tasty lunch in kindergarten,” and “for Mama to be able to eat a piece of cake.”
These food-related wishes are rather close to the spirit of the ancient Japanese Loom Festival. This year the sky was overcast during the festival and we couldn’t see the stars. “Well, then the weaver princess and the cowherd prince are not going to get to meet,” my little girl said sadly. Then she took a deep breath and tried to blow the clouds away. My only wish is that the wishes of every Japanese and Chinese child are granted and that the weaver princess and cowherd prince get to meet on July 7.
The pictures used as illustrations were taken from the following sources: