Shichi-Go-San

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Shichi-Go-San (Seven-Five-Three Festival)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Shinto)
Date of Observation: November 15
Where Celebrated: Japan
Symbols and Customs: Guardian Bag, Thousand-Year Candy, Toy Dog
Colors: Red is the most popular color for girls to wear on this day. Boys usually dress in gray and black.

ORIGINS

The Shichi-Go-San festival is part of the Shinto tradition, an ancient religion that originated in Japan. Most Shinto adherents live in Japan, but small communities also exist in Europe, Latin America, North America, and in the Pacific island nations.

The name Shinto was first employed during the sixth century C . E . to differentiate indigenous religions in Japan from faith systems that originated in mainland Asia (primarily Buddhism and Confucianism). The word is derived from two Chinese characters, shen (gods) and tao (way). Loosely translated, Shinto means "way of the gods." Its roots lie in an ancient nature-based religion. Some important concepts in Shinto include the value of tradition, the reverence of nature, cleanliness (ritual purity), and the veneration of spirits called kami. Strictly speaking, kami are not deities. The literal translation of the word kami is "that which is hidden."

Kami (which is both the singular and plural term) are honored, but they do not assert their powers upon humans in the traditional manner of deities or gods in other religions. People may be descended from the kami, and kami may influence the course of nature and events. The kami can bestow blessings, but they are not all benign. Kami are present in natural things such as trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. They are embodied in religious relics, especially mirrors and jewels. They also include spirits of ancestors, local deities, holy people, and even political or literary figures. The human role is to venerate the kami and make offerings. The ultimate goal of Shinto is to uphold the harmony among humans and between people and nature. In this regard, the principle of all kami is to protect and sustain life.

The central authorities in Shinto are the priests. Traditionally, the duties of the priest were passed through heredity lines, but in modern times priests are trained on the basis of recommendation. The priests' duties include communicating with the kami and ensuring that ceremonies are properly carried out. Shinto does not have a single collection of sacred texts analogous to the Christian Bible or Islamic Qur'an. Instead, several important books provide information and guidance: Kojiki (Records of Ancient Events), Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), and Engishiki (Chronicles of the Engi).

The Shichi-Go-San festival is believed to have originated back in the days when children often died young and parents wanted to express their gratitude for those who had survived. It has long been traditional in Japan to take girls aged seven, boys of five, and all three-year-olds, dressed in their finest, to the neighborhood Shinto shrine on November 15 to invoke the blessings of the family's guardian gods. Three-year-old girls wear their hair fully dressed for the first time in the style worn by their mothers. Five-year-old boys put on traditional skirt-like trousers, and seven-year-old girls wear their first obi, or wide kimono sash.

After the young children have assembled at the shrine where they were registered at birth, the priest performs an old Shinto ritual in which he waves a branch in circles high over the children's heads. At the close of the brief ceremony, the priest's attendants come out, carrying white box-like trays with pyramids of small white paper packages, two for each child. One contains cakes in the form of the Shinto emblems-the mirror, the sword, and the jewel-while the other contains a small quantity of uncooked rice, which is considered sacred because it has been in front of the altar. The mothers take the rice home and mix it with the rice they serve at the evening meal, where family members offer their congratulations to the child before lifting their chopsticks to eat.

Seven, five, and three are considered lucky numbers in Japan, and the most fortunate mother of all is the one who has three children of the appropriate ages and sexes. Fathers often videotape their children as they receive the priest's blessings and a bag of THOUSAND YEAR CANDY .

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Guardian Bag

Many children carry a bag made of brocade or some other brightly colored cloth. It often contains a piece of writing that the priest gave to the child on his or her first visit to the shrine as an infant. Both boys and girls carry these so-called guardian bags, which are considered a symbolic protection against evil.

Thousand-Year Candy

When they get to the shrine, the children who have come to celebrate the SevenFive-Three festival are given sacks full of pink candy known as "Thousand-Year Candy." It is supposed to bring them good luck and a long life. Shichi-Go-San

Toy Dog

Almost every child carries a toy dog to the shrine. These dogs are usually blackand-white, with a cape-like red collar or a red band with a tiny bell. Friends and relatives give the toy dogs to the children as gifts on the festival, and some children are burdened with so many dogs that they must have help carrying them. The dogs, which can range in size from very small to eighteen or more inches high, are considered to be good luck guardians for small children.

FURTHER READING

Bauer, Helen, and Sherwin Carlquist. Japanese Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.

WEB SITE

Web Japan web-japan.org/kidsweb/explore/calendar/november/shichigosan.html

Shichi-Go-San (Seven-Five-Three Festival)

November 15
Shichi-Go-San is an ancient Japanese celebration that marks the special ages of seven, five, and three. It has long been traditional for families to take girls aged seven, boys of five, and all three-year-olds, dressed in their finest, to the neighborhood Shinto shrine where their birth is recorded. There they are purified, and the priest prays to the tutelary deity for their healthy growth. At the end the priest gives each child two little packages: one containing cakes in the form of Shinto emblems (mirror, sword, and jewel), and the other holding sacred rice to be mixed with the evening meal. Afterwards, there are often parties for the children, and customarily they are given a special pink hard candy, called "thousand-year candy," to symbolize hopes for a long life. Because Nov. 15 is not a legal holiday, families now observe the ceremony on the Sunday nearest that date.
Legend says that the custom started because parents believed their children's mischievousness was caused by little worms that somehow entered their bodies. The visits to the shrines were to pray that the mischief-making worms would depart. A more likely story is that the festival began in the days when children often died young, and parents gave thanks for those who survived.
CONTACTS:
Japan Information Network, Japan Center for Intercultural Communications
2-7-7 Hirakawacho
Chiyodaku
Tokyo, 102-0093 Japan
81-3-3263-5041; fax: 81-3-3230-4107
home.jcic.or.jp/en/index-e.html
SOURCES:
AnnivHol-2000, p. 192
BkHolWrld-1986, Nov 15
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 654