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Holidays Just for Kids!

WHY don't we celebrate a Children's Day in America? We have a Mother's Day and a Father's Day. How come we don't have Children's Day?

Have you ever asked this question? My 10-year-old daughter, who was born in Tokyo, the capital of Japan, asks this question every spring. She remembers that the Japanese devote two holidays to children. Two! Girls' Doll Festival is celebrated on March 3, and Children's Day, on May 5, is a national holiday - a day off from school!

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Of course, my daughter thinks that life back in New England is enormously unfair, especially in the spring. As soon as the cherry tree in our front yard blossoms, she thinks of her friends in Japan and how they're getting ready for their holiday. Then she climbs into our attic and rummages through the boxes until she finds our Japanese mementos. It's time to celebrate Children's Day - American style.

As in Japan, the first thing we do is put up decorations. We attach long fabric windsocks, called koi nobori, to a pole in front of our house. Along the streets of Tokyo, these colorful fish-shaped windsocks go up around the middle of April, just after soft pink clouds of cherry blossoms drift from the trees.

The Japanese fly one koi windsock for each member of the family. The largest can measure six feet in length. Each one after that is slightly smaller than the last. You can tell how many children a Japanese family has by the number of koi windsocks it flies. Our family flies a six-foot pink windsock for our first daughter, and a slightly smaller red one for our second daughter.

Another kind of Children's Day decoration you would see in Japan are full suits of antique armor and displays of helmets and swords. In our house, my oldest daughter sets out a paper helmet she once folded in school in Japan. Helmets and swords may seem like unusual decorations to Americans. For the Japanese, however, the armor represents family, honor, and noble heritage. Japanese holidays often mix ancient traditions with modern-day fun.

In Tokyo, modern-day fun is the biggest part of the mixture. Our Japanese friends usually spent Children's Day outdoors. Most trains and subways are free to children that day, along with most zoos, parks, and museums. So, outings are popular. Athletic competitions, especially judo and karate, are also favorites. Some children spend the day visiting their grandparents.

My youngest daughter thinks she remembers receiving presents. I remind her that Children's Day is not a time of gift giving. It's a time to celebrate the strength and happiness children bring to their families. In a way, children are considered the gifts.

No one knows exactly how or when Children's Day began. We do know that it has been celebrated in Japan for hundreds of years, and that until 1948, it was called Boys' Day. Many of the decorations and festivities that are popular today are reminders that the holiday traditionally centers on Japan's sons.

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The fish windsocks, for instance, were flown originally to inspire boys to be courageous. The windsocks are shaped like a fish called koi, which is renowned for its strength and tenacity. According to legend, a koi once swam all the way to heaven and was transformed into a dragon. Nowadays, Japanese families fly koi windsocks to inspire both their daughters and their sons.

The displays of antique suits of armor, called yoroi, also symbolize lofty ambitions. They come from an era of Japanese history when only noble warriors, called samurai, were allowed to wear such attire. At that time, swords and helmets indicated a samurai's rank in society.

Today, Japanese families display samurai armor on Children's Day to encourage their sons and daughters to strive for noble behavior.

Not all Children's Day customs are inspirational, of course. Kite flying, for instance, is a centuries-old tradition carried on today - just for fun. In some parts of Japan, families once announced the birth of a son during the previous year by flying a kite on the fifth day of the fifth month. March, when Girls' Day is celebrated, and May, when Children's Day is honored, are still popular kite-flying months.

In one part of Japan called Shizuoka, the custom of kite flying grew over the years into what is today an annual kite battle. On Children's Day on a beach in Shizuoka, local groups launch huge, brightly-painted kites. Excited bystanders join in as the teams try to maneuver their kites - which measure from 10 to 20-feet square -

so that the strings cross and cut through the strings of the opponents' kites.

Although our family never saw the kite battle in Shizuoka, we spent many Children's Days launching kites into the wind above Tokyo's parks. Now that we're back in New England, we celebrate Children's Day in much the same way. We pack a picnic lunch, unpack our kites, and head for a nearby state park. It's not quite as festive as Children's Day in Tokyo, but the sentiments are the same.

Perhaps you and your family would like to celebrate Children's Day, too. You can experience traditional Japanese activities by visiting a Japanese cultural center in April or May. Korea and China also celebrate children's holidays in spring, so look for special events at those centers. Many American children's museums also sponsor Children's Day celebrations at this time of the year. Check with your public library for information.

Or, you can pack a picnic lunch, dig out your kites, and celebrate the way our family does. Who knows? Maybe the idea will catch on and America will one day declare a national Children's Day, too. Would anybody like a holiday from school? `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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