A W&L Tanabata Virtual Celebration August 2020 Tanabata Virtual Celebration

This past summer of 2020 we had planned to have a Tanabata tea in the Senshin'an Tearoom featuring a display of bamboo wtih Tanabata decorations on the first floor of Leyburn library. Due to Covid 19 we had to make this a virtual event with the wish that we might be able to reschedule these events next summer. 

Tanabata is written with the character "seventh night."  It comes from the story of two lovers who were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way with the promise they could meet but one night a year on the seventh night of the Seventh Month.  It sounds like a dark romantic tragedy complete with exile and forbidden love.  For the Japanese, it is a story that was embraced by the court nobles of the 8th century and passed down through the centuries to become a popular late summer event for the populace.  It is a story of hope, renewal and purification.

For videos of our virtual Tanabata celebration, go to:  facebook.com/wlutearoom

What we first learn is that Tanabata, although often celebrated on the fixed date of July 7th, corresponds to the lunar calendar, which places it often a month later at the start of autumn.  This year's Tanabata was on August 26th, just around the time we began the Fall 2020 academic term.


The first book of autumn in the poetic anthology known as the Kokinshū begins with the sound of an invisible wind that harkens the beginning of autumn.  As the breeze rolls across a river, blowing aside the hem of a robe to reveal the lining beneath, it finally reaches the fields where the leaves of rice plants begin to rustle, hinting of the coming harvest.  Ten poems that invoke the Tanabata story follow in narrative fashion from the intense waiting for that one sole night of meeting, the crossing of the river, to the long-awaited night which ends when the dawn signals it is time to separate once again.  The poetic images are well known in the canon of Tanabata lore: the ferryman who helps the lovers cross the river of heaven but one night a year, references to the weaver maiden and threads of the year, tears drenched with tears that never dry, and the despair that parting inevitably brings after a brief meeting.


One can well understand how the Japanese embraced this celestial legend.  The images of waiting and longing, a fleeting evening tryst and the sorrow of parting already fit well into the poetic sensibility of courtship during this golden age of poetry.  The Japanese have favored melancholy for the way it permeates the heart much deeper than the frivolous joy of a triumphant love affair.


In the tearoom the challenge is how to bring a theme alive through the moving parts of the tea gathering.  One strives for beauty, elegance and subtlety.  Rather than being unashamedly descriptive, one gently pulls the strands of the story together.  The Japanese arts during this time, defined by the "za" or the communal mindset, required that the participants not remain passive listeners, but become contributors to the story.  The story can only come alive if the tea utensils evoke the same sentiments in the guests as planned by the host.

The custom of decorating bamboo branches began in the Edo period.  People attached colorful strips of paper on which were written poems or wishes.  The branch was later thrown into the river.  The bamboo decorations were thought to possess a kind of magical power.  Such bamboo decorations were sometimes set up in the fields as insect repellants.  In the Kanagawa region, children would walk around waving the bamboo branches in a type of purification rite.


Tanabata has often been associated with water and a fear of pestilence that was common during the hot summer months.  It has been a form of purification -- a time for scrubbing the cooking pot, washing hair, cleaning out the well, farmers taking their cows to the seaside for a bath.  These rituals were thought to relieve one of the fatigue of the heat of late summer or drive off drowsiness.



Ogawa, Naoyuki. Nihon No Saiji Denshō. Tōkyō: Kadokawa, 2018.


Rodd, Laurel Rasplica, Mary Catherine Henkenius, and Tsurayuki Ki. Kokinshū: a collection of poems ancient and modern . Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1984.