Hinamatsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival, better known as Girls' Day is celebrated on the third day of the third month, March 3rd. This is the day when families pray for the happiness and prosperity of their daughters and to help ensure that they grow up healthy and beautiful.
Taking place either at home or at the seashore (or both), the family sets up platforms with red cloth (hi-mosen) which is used to display a set of ornamental dolls (hina-ningyo). The dolls on this stair-like display represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants, and musicians in their traditional dresses of Heian period.
What is it about?
These platforms usually have traditional designated areas for each of the fifteen dolls. On the first tier sits the Emperor doll (Obina) and the Empress doll (Mebina). The two intricate dolls are commonly placed in front of a miniature golden folding screen, in a similar way that the real screen would be placed behind the Emperor and Empress in traditional court. The Empress wears Juni-Hitoe, a very intricate kimono with twelve layers of fabric and design. Today, this intricate style of kimono is now used mostly in royal wedding ceremonies.
In the next tier, there are three court ladies, each of which are the sake holders who have specific roles. Sanpou (usually the middle one) sits when others stand or the reverse. The other two sake holders are known as Nagae no choushi and Kuwae no choushi. The following tier holds the five musicians; the Taiko (the small drummer), Ookawa (large hand drummer), Kozutsumi (hand drummer), Fue (one who plays the flute), and the Utaikata (the singer who usually holds a fan, known as Sensu).
The final tier has only two dolls, the ministers. The one on the left was considered wiser than the one to the right and is usually portrayed by a doll with a long white beard. On either side of these ministers are trays of food. Although, an alternation of this doll setting exists where this pier is dedicated to the two guardians or Samurai, both of which hold weapons. Usually, this final pier has three other servants, but other than that, the rest of platform has many miniature furniture like tables, plants such as the orange tree and the cherry tree, rice and other various foods.
The exact origin of this festival isn't certain, but what is certain is that this activity became a holiday during the Edo period (1603-1867) and was popularized as a girls' festival, Hinamatsuri. One popular route to this festival was that the origin was derived from the ancient Chinese festival where agricultural areas followed up on the same superstition that if they built a doll out-of straw and let it float down a river, the doll would shield them from bad luck and illness, taking all mischief with it.
Another explanation comes from the Shinto priests. In the ancient times, March 3rd was the purification day in Shinto religion. During which, a folded paper doll, resembling a kimono, known as a Kata Shiro would be cast away into water or burned, with it the user's sins, illness, bad luck, and all other negative events, this was originally known as Hina-nagashi. This day is also known as Momo no sekku (Peach Festival) due to the peach blossom season on the old lunar calendar.
Hinamatsuri used to be one of the only occasions when little girls had their own parties. Most families bring out the set during mid-February and put it away as soon as possible after Hinamatsuri because of a superstition that declares that if the set is not put away by the night of March 4th the girl will have trouble marrying.
A girl's first Hinamatsuri is known as a Hatzu-zekku and it has become quite popular for grandparents to buy them their first basic set. Although, not many parents can afford a brand new full set, so the mother passes down her set to her daughter(s). Furthermore, with the expensive prices and small living spaces in most Japanese apartments, it has become acceptable and customary for parents to present their girls with only Emperor and Empress pieces at first, leaving other pieces to be added over the years.
A full set is commonly passed down and the dolls are very special; at times old country families might preserve their sets for decades, which is ironic since originally these dolls were meant to be destroyed for the good of the owner.