Doll Festival

Doll Festival

 Doll Festival (Girls’ Day) —Peach Blossom Festival

Hina-matsuri (雛祭り)—March 3rd


Doll Festival, or Hina-matsuri,is the second of the five annual festivals (gosekku) and is sometimes referred to as Momo no sekku, or the “Peach Blossom Festival.” According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the 3rd day of the 3rd month would have fallen in April, so it corresponded to the time when peaches typically blossomed. Peaches were considered to have important healing properties. When the Shogunate, during the Edo period (1603-1868), determined that people of all classes would celebrate the five Seasonal Festivals (gosekku), Girl’s Day became the Peach Blossom Festival (Momo no sekku), just as Boy’s Day (5/5) became known as the Iris Festival (Shōbu no sekku).

In ancient China, the 3rd day of the 3rd month was viewed as auspicious because the repeated odd numbers made it heavily yang, but the change in season also meant that people were more vulnerable to colds and other illnesses. Men and women would cleanse themselves of impurities by brushing their bodies with dolls made of paper or straw and then ritually disposing of these dolls by sending them down a river or out to the ocean. In Japan, this ritual was adopted by the aristocratic classes in Japan in the 8th century and later spread to other sections of the society. Even today, there are places in Japan where sending paper or straw dolls called nagashi-bina downstream as a purification ritual still persists.

In the Heian period (794-1185), it became increasingly popular for daughters in aristocratic families to play with dolls, which came to be called hina ningyō (雛人形). Hina refers to anything that is small and adorable, and ningyō literally means “human shape,” so it is not surprising that dolls were often viewed as human surrogates. Just as impurities and illnesses could be transferred to dolls to keep children healthy, dolls could also be viewed as receptacles of parent’s prayers and hopes for their children’s future prosperity. As Japanese artisans developed their skills, creating ever more elegant and beautiful dolls, people began to keep dolls for display in their homes, rather than ritually sending them down the river. By the Edo period (1603-1868), the practice of creating elaborate displays of dolls for Girl’s Day spread to other classes of the society, and March 3rd was officially designated one of the nenchū gyōji (年中行事), or annual festivals.

The dolls in a typical Doll Festival display today still clearly symbolize the wishes of parents of a certain social class for their daughter’s future prosperity, which was often realized in earlier times through the prospects of a good marriage. At the top of the display sit the emperor (o-dairi sama) and empress (o-hina sama) dolls dressed for their wedding. On the next level down, there are three court ladies-in-waiting (sannin kanjo) with food and sake (wine) and below that sit the five musicians (gonin bayashi), playing flutes and drums. Depending on the family’s wealth, a full set of dolls would include the ministers of the left and right and several other messengers and servants. On the lower tiers of the platform, a variety of miniature furniture, utensils, and carriages would also be displayed. 

These dolls were an important part of a wealthy young woman’s dowry. Even if a family could not afford the whole set of dolls, they would still try to provide their daughters with some variation on the emperor and empress dolls. Today, most families bring out their hina ningyō for display around mid to late February and take them down immediately after the festival on March 3rd. There is a common superstition that keeping the dolls on display beyond the day of the festival might lead to a late marriage for the daughters in the family, so anxious parents don’t want to take any chances!

As with all festivals in Japan, rice cakes (mochi) play a significant role in the Doll’s Festival. In early times, girls would take their dolls on picnic outings, so a distinctive kind of miniature dry rice cracker called arare was developed for these occasions. In modern times, however, most families with daughters celebrate the festival with an indoor party at home, typically in the room where the dolls are displayed. Rice cakes in a diamond shape and layered in the colors, green, white, and pink are also displayed to represent the blossoming peaches. Children drink non-alcoholic sweet sake called amazake. These foods are symbolically meant to keep them healthy in the year ahead. People also eat chirashi-zushi (literally, “scattered sushi”) with a variety of colorful fish and other ingredients scattered over sushi rice, and they drink a broth soup with clams (hamaguri). The two sides of a clamshell fit perfectly together and are therefore thought to symbolize a good marriage. Although ideas about what constitutes a promising future have changed over time and vary from one culture to another, it can be safely said that parents’ wishes for the next generations’ health and future happiness remain much the same the world over.


Doll Festival Song  (Ureshii Hina-matsuri)

(Verse one)

Akari wo tsukemasho bonbori ni

Let’s light the paper lanterns

Ohana wo agemasho momo no hana

Let’s make offerings of peach blossoms

Gonin bayashi no fue taiko

Five musicians with flutes and drums

Kyō wa tanoshii hinamatsuri

Today is joyful Doll’s Day

(Verse two)

Odairi sama to ohina sama

The emperor doll and his wife

Futari narande sumashi gao

Sitting side by side so calmly

Oyome ni irashita nee sama ni

They remind me of my older sister’s wedding

Yoku nita kanjo no shiroi kao

Her face all white, like a lady of the court