For most Americans, spring officially begins around March 21st. Not so, according to several of the world’s sacred traditions. I recently wrote about Makar Sankrati, a start-of-the-spring holiday from the Hindu tradition that almost always occurs on Jan. 14th. From the pagan/goddess tradition, we had Brigid last weekend. And earlier this week (Feb. 3), it was Setsubun!
Setsubun is actually celebrated the day before spring starts, and it comes to us courtesy of the Shinto tradition. Roughly translated, Shinto means “Way of the Gods,” and it comprises various traditions associated with indigenous deity worship in Japan. Shinto spirits (kami) can be found in animals, in deceased ancestors, and throughout nature. These spirits, which possess both positive and negative characteristics, are thought to live among humans, although they are invisible. They represent the connectedness of all things and offer models of ideal human behavior. Shinto concepts have morphed over the course of Japan’s history, and Shinto itself, has remained remarkable inclusive throughout the ages. As a result, Shinto co-exists peacefully with Buddhism in Japan, and many Japanese people participate in both Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies, including those of Setsubun.
In times past, Setsubun was associated with the lunar new year, a time when the spirit world and the physical world came close to one another. Interestingly, similar language is used in the pagan tradition at their new year, called Samhain (SAH-win), which happens at Halloween. Neopagans/Wiccans frequently mention that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thinnest at Samhain. During Samhain, spirits, fairies, and the souls of the dead are often welcomed with offerings. During Setsubun, however, the emphasis is generally on driving away any evil spirits that might be wandering too close.
Today, Setsubun is best known for its bean-throwing ritual. In one common version of the practice, the male head of household throws roasted soybeans at someone else who is wearing a demon mask. Everyone shouts, “Demons out! Fortune in!” Afterwards, everyone eats the same number of beans as their age. Sometimes, an extra bean is eaten to bring extra luck in the upcoming year.
Like all rituals that have been around for thousands of years, there are numerous variations on the theme. The person throwing the beans might be a male – or female – who was born in the same animal year. This year, 2014, is the Year of the Horse, so someone born during a Year of the Horse would likely earn the honor. Sometimes, beans are thrown out the door instead of at a demon figure. And to make things easy on busy Japanese families, Setsubun sets containing a demon mask and a pack of soybeans can be purchased at nearly all convenience stores. Plenty of accommodating Japanese parents don a mask and willingly withstand attacks from their bean-throwing toddlers.
While bean-tossing is one of the most common activities during Setsubun, a variety of events take place across Japan. There are drum concerts, Shinto ceremonies, staged dramas, priests shooting arrows at demons figures, and costumed demons who will beat you with sticks for good luck. An older tradition, not quite as popular nowadays, makes use of unpleasant objects to ward off the Setsubun demons. Some families eat grilled sardines; others hang them up on the door or outside on a tree. If sardines aren’t enough to ward off all the evil in your life, you can add garlic and/or prickly holly leaves.
All holidays that last must change with the times, and Setsubun is no exception. Nowadays, priests from Shinto shrines/Buddhist temples and other community members might throw soybeans wrapped in gold or silver foil packets. Other packets might contain a few coins, candy, or a prize ticket. Hundreds of people gather for such events, and everyone, young and old alike, scrambles for a lucky packet.
Another emerging trend is eating a very large, uncut sushi roll, in silence, while facing in an auspicious direction. The sushi rolls measure about 8” long and are about 2-3 times thicker than normal. The rolls often contain seven ingredients, since seven is a lucky number, and eating them in silence is made easier by the fact that very large bites are taken. The proper dining orientation is based on the location of that year’s harvest deity. Apparently, this year’s lucky direction was east-north-east. While the tradition seemingly began in a single region, supermarkets figured out a way to mass produce and market the rolls, which has greatly increased their popularity. Like our modern-day Christmas, it’s a great testament to the influence of advertising on sacred rituals.
So how can you celebrate Setsubun with your kids? The most obvious way is to roast a few soybeans and throw them! You could also make demon masks. Masks are easily crafted using paper plates or plastic mask templates found at discount stores. Add some color and some horns and you’re good to go! If your kids play fairly, let them take turns wearing the demon masks and throwing the beans. If not, consider making a Setsubun game. Take a paper bag and draw a demon on the front of it. Set the bag on top of a box or table. Then, toss beans and knock the demon off his perch.
You could always teach your kids a bit of Japanese. The phrase used during Setsubun is very simple. The word “oni” means “demon” and the word “fuku” means happiness/good luck/fortune. So the phrase is, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” Kids pick up on languages much more easily than adults, so they will learn this phrase in an instant. Open the door, shout the phrase, and toss your beans. If you’re not up for crafts or a language lesson, simply eat sushi rolls for lunch!
This short video shows a variety of Setsubun activities
If you like kid videos, this one’s pretty cute. It’s a short, home video showing two little girls celebrating Setsubun with their baby brother. You can see them eating large sushi rolls while facing a particular direction, wearing masks while pretending to be demons, and throwing packets of beans.
Not sure how to roast soybean? Here are some easy instructions.