Global Holidays at Home: Wish on a Star for Japan's Tanabata
It’s the middle of the summer and the skies are clear. A shooting star zooms across the sky and your child asks, “Why do stars change places in the sky?” You never had an answer until now. Now, you celebrate Tanabata.
The midsummer wishing festival with colorful streamers and exciting parades celebrates forbidden love among the stars– something that you might not want to condone if you have teenagers. Nonetheless, this fun summer festival gives kids a chance to make wishes and send them off into the sea. Whether their wishes are granted or not– that’s another matter.
Legend Has It...
If the term “star-crossed lovers” is a hard one to explain to your pining teenagers, try the story of “The Weaver and the Cowherd,” a Chinese legend which inspired Tanabata in Japan, as well as similar holidays Qixi in China and Chilseok in Korea.
As the story goes, the king of the heavens separated his daughter (the weaver star) from her lover (the cowherd star) because their intense love made them neglect their interstellar duties– weaving blouses and tending cows, respectively– causing chaos in the heavens. So the king fixed these two stars at opposite ends of the galaxy. But the king’s daughter wished and prayed so hard that the king finally relented and brought the two sides of the galaxy together for one night a year so the two could be reunited.
That one night, of course, is Tanabata (July 7, 2017), commonly celebrated on July 7 or August 7, depending on the region. On this night, according to legend, magpies created a bridge over the river (the galaxy) so that the weaver star could make her way across time and space to see the cowhand star. If it rains on this night, the magpies won’t come and the lovers will not be able to meet. So the Japanese pray for clear skies.
Make a Wish
These days, lovers aren’t the only ones with wishes to be granted. The Japanese celebrate Tanabata by writing their wishes on multi-colored paper, hanging those wishes on the branches of small bamboo trees and setting those trees on fire as they’re floating in the river.
Besides the fire, all of this seems like a pretty festive way to spend an evening. Get multi-colored crepe paper streamers and a bonsai tree or planted bamboo shoots for your celebration. Have each of your kids pick a color of crepe paper and spread out a long strip to write on. Then, use markers to write out the wish.
You can discuss these with your kids, too– it doesn’t have to be a secret wish. Some Japanese people write their wishes in the form of poetry, which is a good way to tease out a shy, aspiring poet (or to punish any seventh grade English student who’s had too much summer vacation).
Now you can hang the paper strips on your bonsai or bamboo tree, or go outside and decorate a tree in the front yard with your crepe paper wishes. Once your tree is decorated, it’s time to make those wishes come true. Look up at the stars, find your favorite constellations, and wish into the sky for extra good measure. This would also be a great time to teach your kids about the constellations.
Like other festivals and holidays, Tanabata is a time in Japan for family, friends, and loved ones to gather and eat together. It’s an especially nice time to reconnect with people you haven’t seen recently (perhaps it’s been a year to the day?) and eat traditional Japanese foods. Their names may be confusing, but the flavors are likely very approachable.
Yakitori, popular at Japanese street food vendors, is simply chicken skewers. The Japanese use chicken hearts, liver, skin, and bone with the meat, but you don’t have to be that adventurous. Place pieces of chicken on a stick with spring onion between each piece and fire up the grill. It’s a simple, tasty snack that anyone can enjoy, especially with a good barbeque dipping sauce.
For noodle-loving kids, try a Japanese buckwheat noodle called “soba” for the dish yakisoba. Cook the noodles and fry them with soy sauce, vegetables (often cabbage), and pork. The Japanese use yakisoba sauce to dress the dish, but you can mix in soy sauce, sriracha, ginger, basil, or anything else flavorful into this simple stir fry.
Finally, no festival is complete without takoyaki, fried dough balls filled with octopus. But octopus isn’t for everyone, and a warm, soft fried dough ball is also killer when topped with maple syrup, powdered sugar, or raspberries. This is how the Danish eat “aebleskiver,” their version of the same fried dough ball that Americans are slightly more familiar with. You can pick up an indented aebleskiver/takoyaki pan at Macy’s or World Market for a hybrid Danish-Japanese purpose.
Will you be celebrating Tanabata this year? What part of the festivities are you looking forward to the most? Share with us!