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Doll Festival Marks Onset of Spring

Date Posted: 2001-03-02

At this time of year department stores in Okinawa have clusters of richly decorated dolls on tiers of steps, covered in red cloth. They mark March 3, or Hina-matsuri, the Doll Festival or Girls' Day, which began in ancient China and came to Japan in the Edo period, in the 17th Century.

At home families also set up special step-altars on which to arrange the family dolls or "hina" in Japanese. They decorate this altar with boughs of peach blossoms, which symbolize a happy marriage and are supposed also to embody the feminine traits of gentility, composure and tranquility. In addition they make offerings to the dolls of freshly-made mochi rice-cakes, either flavored with a wild herb or colored and cut into festive, diamond shapes. In addition to dolls, these altars display many beautiful and luxurious, decorative accessories. Traditionally families with young daughters celebrate this event to ensure their daughters’ future happiness.

The dolls are replicas of an ancient Emperor and Empress and their courtiers. They are too precious to be used as playthings but are part of the valuable heritage of a household, many handed down from generation to generation. They are displayed for a few days in the best room of the house at festival time, after which they are carefully boxed and put away until the next year. Parents who are able to do so buy new sets of dolls for a girl baby born since the preceding festival, and relatives and friends make gifts of dolls.

A set of hina is usually at least 15 in number and all in their ancient costumes. The display also includes miniature household articles which often are exquisitely made. The most highly valued dolls represent the Emperor and Empress, resplendent in costumes of silk. They are attended by two ministers, three court ladies and five musicians. All are displayed on a tier of steps, usually five, from 3 to 6 ft. long and covered with bright red cloth.

The Imperial couple occupy the top step, the Emperor at the left of the Empress. Court ladies and banquet trays and dishes occupy the second tier; the other dolls are arranged on the lower tiers.

In the old days, on March 3 by the Lunar Calendar, men women and children made crude dolls of paper and in creating them transferred their ill fortunes or sickness to the dolls. Gathering the dolls, they went together to a nearby brook or river and cast them, bearing all their evils, into the water. It was thus an occasion for a family outing, just when milder weather was starting. The festival is supposed to mark the first day of spring.

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