WALK into a department store in Japan in February and you'll be dazzled by dolls: aisle after aisle of small porcelain emperors and empresses. They sit on red shelves and wait for little girls to buy them for Hina Matsuri, or Girls' Doll Festival, on March 3. Girls' Doll Festival, which is sometimes called Girls' Day, is perhaps one of the oldest and most feminine holidays in the world.
Some say it began over 1,000 years ago during a time in Japanese history called the Heian Period. In those days, members of the emperor's court wore elaborate costumes, had delicate manners, and devoted their time to poetry and music. Some people think that Girls' Doll Festival originated as a way for families to teach their daughters courtly behavior.
Today, on Girls' Day, Japanese girls change from T-shirts and tennis shoes and dress in their best kimonos, traditional costumes. They arrange their hair with fancy combs and ornaments, and entertain friends and family in front of a display of their dolls. The dolls are dressed in the elaborate silk brocade kimonos that members of the Heian court once wore.
Girls' Day dolls are carefully packed away for most of the year. A collection may include family heirlooms that have been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. A Japanese baby girl's first gift may be a doll for Hina Matsuri.
A week or so before March 3, girls unpack their dolls and set them on special shelves in the main room of their homes. The shelves are covered with red fabric - red is considered a happy and feminine color - and are usually stacked in three, five, or seven tiers.
In the center of the top tier, sitting in front of shimmery gold screens, are the emperor and empress. The empress wears a fancy gold crown and an elaborate silk kimono with long layered sleeves. The emperor wears a tall black crown and an equally elaborate silk kimono. The handsome face of the emperor doll is said to be modeled after a famous character in Japanese literature called Genji, the Shining Prince.
On the shelves below the emperor and empress sit courtiers, ladies-in-waiting, musicians, and guards. Most Hina Matsuri collections have 15 or more dolls, plus several tiny household items. There may be chests of drawers, lamps, bowls, and musical instruments. Beautiful black lacquered carts with big wheels, in which the emperor and empress may ride to moon-viewing ceremonies, often are placed on the bottom shelf. Some little girls add their favorite ``everyday'' dolls to the display, as well.
On March 3, an arrangement of fresh peach blossoms traditionally is placed near the doll display. Peach blossoms symbolize qualities the Japanese consider feminine, such as gentleness, sweetness, and tranquility. They also represent spring, and in some ways, Girls' Doll Festival marks the beginning of the season. Long ago, the festival was called the Peach Blossom Festival, Momo no Sekku. Some people still refer to it that way.
By whatever name it's called, the festival is a time when Japanese girls welcome friends and family to a celebration of courtly traditions. Special rice cakes cut out in the shape of diamonds and flowers are served. Fruit-shaped candies and sugar cakes may also be offered.
It is considered bad luck for a girl to leave her Hina Matsuri collection on display after March 3. On the very next day, the tiny emperor and empress and their court are taken down and carefully packed away. Girls' Doll festival is over - until next year.