March 3rd is the most delightful day for Japanese girls, called “Hina-matsuri” which means doll festival. Families who have young daughters decorate a set of splendid miniature dolls in their best room of the house during this festive occasion. Hina-matsuri's purpose is to wish young girls good health and happiness.
A set of Hina-dolls usually consists of at least 15 dolls dressed in formal classical court costumes. Two dolls decorated on the top shelf represent an ancient emperor and empress. Under the imperial couple, three court ladies, five court musicians and two ministers are all arranged in order on a lower tier of red carpet steps. Following that, lacquered miniature furniture, household articles and treasury artifacts are arranged on the lowest shelves, symbolizing a bridal dowry.
The custom originated in ancient China. In ancient times people believed dolls had mysterious power to conceal evil spirits in order to save their owner from dangerous encounters. Ancient people made statues with straw or paper dolls, and floated it down river to cast out their bad luck. In Japan, some areas still preserve this tradition. Paper dolls are placed in a small boat and released in a stream. The hope is these dolls will take bad luck or sickness with them.
The custom was first adopted in the aristocratic society during the Heian-era (794-1185). Hina-dolls were a popular gift exchange item for noble families. In medieval Japan, when high motility rate was really critical concern for household, wishing children’s good health was a universal desire among parents. Daughters of noble families were commonly accustomed to playing with miniature dolls at home, and it later assimilated with religious rituals into the Hina-matsuri tradition.
Many princesses of Shogun Tokugawa in the 18th century adored Hina-dolls, and it triggered merchants to produce a lot of elaborate dolls during the Edo period (1603-1867). Hina-doll markets emerged in town and its fame spread widely among common people as well. Instead of floating it down river, people then preferred decorating expensive Hina-dolls at their house.
Today some Hina-doll sets could cost nearly $10,000. So dolls are not played with like ancient times. They are mainly for ceremonial purposes. And each household handles them as precious treasures that can be passed from generation to generation. Parents or grandparents usually buy new sets of dolls for their granddaughter's first birthday. Some families buy one doll each year to add to their doll collection. Nowadays many families prefer small set of dolls, such as only the emperor and empress dolls due to limited space in their homes and financial considerations.
Special meals are prepared on the day of the event. Japanese girls invite their small friends to the home where they are celebrating the festival by offering sweets and special beverages to dolls. Common festival menus include Chirashi-zushi (sashimi and colorful toppings on sushi rice), Clam soup, sweet rice cake, Hishi-mochi (diamond shaped rice cakes) and Shiro-zake (sweet mild rice wine). All ingredients represent fresh-spring colors and tastes.
Family members then put away the Hina-dolls soon after the event. Traditionally, it has been said that a daughter will get married late if the display is not removed right away. As well as hoping for good health and happiness, Japanese parents are also concerned with their daughters’ prospects for marriage.
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