Holidays and Regular Observances

How does the agricultural cycle affect Shinto-related ritual celebrations?

Many festivities are still tied to various agricultural occasions. Spring and autumn festivals correspond with planting and harvesting. A large cluster of so-called spring festivals (haru-matsuri) covers events that run generally from January to May, though some areas stretch the season into July. In late March or April people celebrate the Cherry Blossom festival, one of nature’s sublime but fleeting glories. On May 5 (fifth of the fifth in some places, other days elsewhere) many people observe a Rice Planting day. Two of Kyoto’s larger shrines, Kamigamo and Shimogamo in the north of the city, celebrate a prayer for good harvest called Hollyhock Festival (aoi-matsuri), complete with elaborate processions and reenactments of ancient imperial events. With countless regional variations, the planting (or transplanting) rites occur generally during May, June, and July, stretching well into the summer season. This seasonal overlap is a result of using more than one system for converting ritual occasions from the lunar to the solar calendar. Some shrines host enormous gatherings centered around processions and contests of various kinds.

Autumn festivals (aki-matsuri) include a similar grouping of celebrations that begin even before the summer festival season has ended and extend into October. At the beginning of each imperial era, the new emperor performs an autumn celebration called the “Great Feast of New Food” (daijosai), offering rice to the Sun Goddess and imperial forebears. Whether in the imperial palace or at local shrines, these are all occasions for gratitude to the kami for bountiful harvest. Between planting and harvest are a host of generally smaller summer festivals (natsu-matsuri), during which people pray for a healthy crop. Some shrines, however, still host major celebrations during July, August, and September. Many of these are occasions for teams (made up primarily of younger men and boys) to engage in spirited competition, vying to get their mikoshi along the procession route faster and arrive at the shrine first.

Winter festivals (fuyu-no-matsuri) revolve largely around preparations for the end of the year and New Year’s celebrations (shogatsu). Calculated on the solar calendar, the winter solstice heralds the new year, so many people begin these rites with ceremonial cleaning and wrap up the old year by laying old sewing needles to rest at a local shrine. Honor for all things that contribute to human civilization—not for human beings alone—that have come to the end of their lives is essential. Seven days during a period called the “great cold” (daikan, generally between January sixth and twenty-first) retain some of their ancient associations. People gather at shrines to enjoy the return of the sun in lengthening days that portend spring, and to pray for good fortune in general.


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