The seventh day of the seventh moon (August 20 this year) is the day in China for celebrating the love story of the weaver maid and the cowherd. The legend tells of two lovers — Zhinu, the weaver maid, represented by the bright star Vega, and Niulang, the cowherd, represented by the star Altair — who are separated by the Silver River (the Milky Way), but on this one day of the year a bridge of magpies allows them to cross the river and spend time together.
Their story dates back over 2,500 years. And the festival known as Qixi Festival has been celebrated since the third century. Young women go to temples to ask Zhinu for wisdom. They try to thread a needle by the light of the moon, which will give them skill in embroidery in the future.
Offerings are made to the two lovers: a comb, a mirror, cosmetics for the weaver maid, as well as scissors and a needle and thread. Other offerings include flowers, fruit, incense, nuts, paper kimonos, and even a paper airplane (to take the two lovers across the Milky Way if it rains and the magpies can’t make a bridge). Rain on this day represents the tears of the separated lovers.
This Chinese festival crossed into Japanese culture in the eighth century, where the lovers are known as Orihime and Hikoboshi. It is often celebrated on July 7 (the seventh day of the seventh month in the Gregorian calendar) and is known as Tanabata or Star Festival. In earlier times, girls prayed for husbands and domestic skills like embroidery while boys made wishes for better writing by writing wishes on paper strips. It was said that the ink should be made from the dew on the taro leaves.
In contemporary Japan, people write wishes (sometimes in the form of poetry) on papers of the five colors (green, yellow, red, white, and black), which are attached to bamboo. The decorations are sometimes burned or set afloat on a river, either at midnight or sometime during the next day.
If you want to celebrate this festival in a small way, write a wish on a piece of paper (or embroider it on a strip of cloth) and attach it to a wishing tree.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
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