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Tanabata
Tanabata (七夕, たなばた, tanabata), meaning "Evening of the seventh") - A Japanese star festival, derived from Obon traditions and the Chinese star festival, Qi Xi, also called Chilseok in Korea. The festival is usually held on July 7, and celebrates the meeting of Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair). The Milky Way, a river made from stars that crosses the sky, separates these lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year. This special day is the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar.

The festival originated from The Festival to Plead for Skills (乞巧節; qǐ qiǎo jié), an alternative name for Qi Xi, which was celebrated in the Kyoto Imperial Palace from the Heian Period. The festival spread to the general public by the early Edo period, became mixed with various Obon traditions, and developed into the modern Tanabata festival. In the Edo period, girls wished for better sewing and craftsmanship, and boys wished for better handwriting by writing wishes on strips of paper. At this time, the custom was to use dew left on Taro leaves to create the ink used to write wishes.

Like Qi Xi and Chilseok, Tanabata was inspired by the famous Chinese folklore, The Princess and the Cowherd.

Orihime (織姫, Weaving Princess?) the daughter of the Tenkou (天工, Sky King, or the universe itself) wove beautiful clothes by the bank of the River of Heaven (天の川 Amanogawa). Her father loved the cloth that she wove and so she worked very hard every day to weave it. However, she was sad that because of her hard work she could never meet and fall in love with anyone. Concerned about his daughter, Tenkou arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (彦星, Cow Herder Star) sometimes called Kengyuu (牽牛, Chinese name of Hikoboshi) who lived and worked on the other side of the Amanogawa River. When the two met, they fell instantly in love with each other and were shortly married. However, once married, Orihime no longer would weave cloth for Tenkou and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to stray all over Heaven. In anger, Tenkou separated the two lovers across the Amanogawa River and forbade them to meet. Orihime became despondent at the loss of her husband and asked her father to let them meet again. Tenkou was moved by his daughter’s tears and allowed the two to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month if Orihime worked hard and finished her weaving. The first time they tried to meet, however, they found that they could not cross the river because there was no bridge. Orihime cried so much that a flock of magpies (鵲, カササギ, Kasasagi) came and promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river. If it rains, the magpies cannot come and the two lovers must wait till next year.

The following variation of the story is known in China and Japan: A young farmer named Mikeran discovered on his farm a robe which, unbeknownst to him, belonged to a goddess named Tanabata. Soon after, Tanabata visited Mikeran and asked if he had found it. He lied and told the goddess that he hadn't but would help with her search. Eventually the pair fell in love, were wed and had many children. However, one day Tanabata noticed a piece of cloth which had once belonged to her robe on the roof of Mikeran's hut. His lie discovered, Tanabata agreed to forgive him on the condition that he weave a thousand pairs of straw shoes, but until that time, she would leave him. Mikeran was unable to weave the shoes in his lifetime and thus never met Tanabata again. However, it is said that the pair meet once a year when the stars Altair and Vega intersect.

In present-day Japan, people generally celebrate this day by writing wishes, sometimes in the form of poetry, on tanzaku (短冊, tanzaku), small pieces of paper, and hanging them on bamboo, sometimes with other decorations. The bamboo and decorations are often set afloat on a river or burned after the festival, around midnight or on the next day. This resembles the custom of floating paper ships and candles on rivers during Obon. Many areas in Japan have their own Tanabata customs, which are mostly related to local Obon traditions.

There is also a traditional Tanabata song:

Sasa no ha sara-sara (笹の葉さらさら)
Nokiba ni yureru (軒端にゆれる)
Ohoshi-sama kira-kira (お星様キラキラ)
Kin Gin sunago (金銀砂ご)

Translation:

The bamboo leaves rustle, rustle,
shaking away in the eaves.
The stars go twinkle, twinkle;
Gold and silver grains of sand.

Information source: “Tanabata.” wikipedia.org. Article date: 29 Jan. 2008. Retrieved: Wikipedia. 4 Feb. 2008 <Tanabata>.
 

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