Walk into a Japanese home this Friday, and you will see elaborate displays of kimono-adorned dolls that have been passed down from generation to generation, with their owners praying for the health and happiness of their daughters. The dolls can be very expensive and are cherished as family heirlooms. Passing a doll collection from grandmother to mother to daughter, while a practical economic exercise, also marks the strength of one’s matrilineal connection.
“Hina Matsuri,” which translates to “Doll Festival” and is also known as Girl’s Day, is celebrated annually on the third day of the third month, March 3. The festival started in eighth century Japan, during the Heian period. In those days, dolls made of straw were set on small boats and sent downriver toward the sea, symbolically taking bad spirits or troubles with them.
Growing up in Hawaii, my family celebrated this tradition that our Japanese-immigrant ancestors brought when they came to work in the fields of the sugar-cane plantations. Although we didn’t have the expensive and elaborate doll display, we marked Girl’s Day in a way that is more accessible to most people; through food and acts of service.
Photo by Kim Vukovich
There is a large Japanese-immigrant ancestral population in Hawaii, so many stores and bakeries will offer “hishi-mochi,” a special, three-tiered, multi-colored, Japanese rice cake. Traditionally, the pink layer is made with cape jasmine fruit and symbolizes peach blossoms. The white layer uses water chestnuts and represents snow, and the green layer, which calls for mugwort, is reminiscent of the new growth of spring.
On Girl’s Day in Hawaii, one can expect to be gifted a sweeter, more dessert-like, version of this special hishi-mochi by family, friends and co-workers. Although it is frequently a store-bought treat, this popular version of hishi-mochi can also easily be made at home, with commonly found ingredients.
Photo by Kim Vukovich
Aside from this delicious treat, another Girl’s Day custom from my childhood was the considerate treatment we received from the boys. As a student, my teacher would remind the class that today was Girl’s Day so the boys should be on their best behavior and looking out for ways to be extra helpful to their fellow female classmates. Being in fourth grade and having a boy ask to carry your books or give you first dibs on the playground swings or offer to clean your desk at the end of class was a welcomed and memorable departure from the average school day. And don’t worry, us girls returned the favor on Boy’s Day, May 5th.
My mother kept up the Girl’s Day celebration for my sister and me, even after we’d grown up and moved away to build our own lives. Every March 3rd, she’d send a card, telling us why she felt lucky to have us as daughters, always with some money tucked in to buy mochi or a favorite treat.
10 years ago, when my first baby was born, my mother passed the torch and March 3rd became a day to honor my own daughter. Since then, my husband and I have added two more daughters to our family and moved around the country, causing our celebratory traditions to vary from year to year. Some years, if we happen to be near a Japanese store on Girl’s Day we’ll purchase mochi and small, kimono doll trinkets. Other years, we’ve baked mochi at home and crafted origami flowers. Last year, March 3rd snuck up on me but luckily I found a forgotten box of mochiko (white rice flour) in the back of my pantry and was able to whip up a batch of mochi brownies late in the day. Traditions are made to be bent right? I’m sure the gods can make an exception when the addition of chocolate is involved.
Speaking of therapeutic chocolate, 2016 was a tough year for feminism. In many ways it feels like, as a society, we’ve taken two steps back. While this regression is alarming and anxiety-inducing, it’s also become evident that there’s a silver-lining shining through, which grows brighter every day. Feminists of many genders, ages, races and nationalities, some of whom are voicing their concerns for the first time, are loudly reminding the world that we demand equality.
This year especially, I’ll be making a big deal about Girl’s Day for my three daughters. I will bake the special rice cakes and we’ll make origami dolls together. Most importantly, I’ll talk to them about their inherent equal worth as girls.
As feminists, their dad and I will continue to send our worries down the river and then get back to the work of shaping a world that will support our girls’ equal right to health and happiness as they grow into strong women.
Header photo courtesy of Big Ben CC BY-SA via Creative Commons