The Japanese festival of Hina-Matsuri is held every year on 3 March. This is a traditional festival which was originally created to ward off impurities, sickness and ill-fortune - nowadays, it's an opportunity for celebrating girls' growth and good health.
On this occasion it is customary for families that have daughters to display dolls (called 'hina-ningyo') on tiers of shelves. Thus, it was believed that the sins and misfortune of the body are transferred to a doll. These blights can then be removed by discarding the doll in a river. Indeed, some families still perform a custom called 'hina-okuri' or 'nagashi-bina' whereby they float paper dolls down rivers late in the afternoon.
The doll-stand usually consists of one, five or seven tiers of shelves and is covered with a bright red cloth. The dolls displayed on these shelves are dressed in beautiful ancient court costumes of the Heian Period (794-1192 AD). A set of Hina dolls usually includes the Emperor and Empress (called the Dairi-sama), three sannin-kanjo (Ladies-in-Waiting), five gonin-bayashi (musicians), two retainers or ministers (ujaijin and sadaijin) and three guards - a minimum of 15 dolls. These are displayed in descending order on the shelves, often surrounded by small pieces of furniture.
On the seven-tier cabinets, the lower two levels are used to display typical items that a Japanese bride might receive as wedding presents, such as decorative screens, wedding baskets or chests of drawers.
The Empress wears a twelve-layered ceremonial robe called the 'juuni-hitoe' which, even nowadays, is worn at wedding ceremonies involving the Royal Family; for example Princess Sayako wore it in 2005 for her wedding to commoner Yoshiki Kuroda.
In the past, the dolls were hand-crafted from paper but, nowadays, some dolls are so expensive that ordinary people cannot afford them, and many families just decorate the Emperor and Empress.
For this reason, dolls often become family heirlooms or treasures and are handed down from generation to generation. In the absence of such a family heirloom set, a girl's grandparents or parents will buy them for her first Hina-matsuri (hatsu-zekku).
Although some families set up their display for one day only, many set up their display as early as mid-February. There is a superstition that, unless the dolls are put away by 4 March, the daughter will get married late in life.
During the festival of Hina-Matsuri, people generally have a good time, drinking a sweet mild rice wine (saki) called 'Chirashi-zushi' (white alcohol) and eating red (or pink), white and green lozenge-shaped rice cakes1and Hina-Arare (colourful 'popped' rice). The red rice cakes are for warding off evil spirits, the white ones symbolise purity whilst the green ones are for good health. Very often a dish containing clams is included, such as clam soup with spring herbs. Clams are symbolic of chastity.
Household decorations include cherry blossoms in vases; cherry petals having been especially revered in Japan since ancient times.