How to Celebrate Setsubun with Kids
Demons out and good fortune in!
February 1, 2023
Families, In Season
Looking for fun ways to introduce (or re-introduce!) this February holiday to your little ones? Our ideas below offer suggestions based on tradition, but with contemporary kids in mind, to get them engaged in this fascinating piece of Japanese culture!
The Japanese festival of Setsubun, which falls this year on February 3, is a favorite of children across the country. Marking the start of spring and the new year on the Lunar Calendar, this holiday began long ago in the Muromachi period (1337-1573). It is traditionally celebrated by customs, like bean throwing and hanging sardines and holly outside the door, which were intended to purify the home for the new year by keeping demons out and luck inside.
The basic premise of the holiday in the present day is summed up by its (comically descriptive!) English name: Bean-Throwing Festival. In a ritual symbolizing cleansing the home sphere from bad luck and ill health, children throw roasted soybeans at an adult in the family who is dressed in a special oni (demon) mask while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Demons out! Good fortune in!). Day cares, kindergardens and elementary schools also organize bean-throwing events, as do temples across Japan to celebrate this popular holiday. After throwing the beans, you can eat them (precisely one more than your age), praying for good health for the upcoming year.
Another important part of the holiday is eating ehomaki, a special type of long sushi roll with exactly seven ingredients, which represent the Seven Gods of Fortune. Ehomaki must be eaten in a particular way, facing the proper direction of the year (2023’s is south-south-east) and whole (aka without cutting it into maki-style slices). Consuming ehomaki on Setsubun is said to bring good luck for the year. Sometimes, families also hang sardines and holly outside their doors, both of which were traditionally deemed unappealing to demons and thus also contribute to keeping the home free of evil spirits.
So, how to best celebrate with your little one? Read on for our ideas to welcome spring and good luck into your home together!
1. Throw beans at the oni
Perhaps this idea seems daunting for the uninitiated, but have no fear! Indeed, the oni/demon (often the father of the family) is supposed to be at least a little “scary” as they attempt to enter the home sphere. Mamemaki (bean throwing) kits are available at supermarkets and conbini ahead of the festival which include the beans (roasted soybeans) and the masks necessary. A word of caution: for children under three, the beans can pose a choking hazard so please keep their little hands away!
2. Make oni masks
For a kid-friendly twist, make masks yourself at home! Try using a paper plate for the face with some toilet paper rolls or empty Yakult bottles to imitate horns or sharp teeth. Decorations, like yarn for hair, can also help to make a convincing oni! The video above has various oni mask ideas to try.
3. Make Setsubun crafts
To engage your budding artist, try making a mameire (bean-holding container) out of origami with older kids. With little ones, I like to color in pictures of demons, like these printable ones.
4. Sing songs
Since oni are key to Setsubun, why not teach your young kid the always amusing Japanese children’s song, “Oni no Pantsu” (The Demon’s Underwear) which delights little ones of all ages? You can learn it from this lyric book with funny drawings:
The Oni no Pantsu song also features teasobi (hand gestures/dance) which preschoolers love! I like the version in the video above.
5. Eat ehomaki
If your kids are like mine, sushi is always a popular meal plan! Affordable sushi chain Sushiro has some available for preorder now. While you can also buy ehomaki at grocery stores, conbini and even department stores, another option is to make one at home as a family! Check out our how to make your own ehomaki article for a great recipe!
6. Make a Setsubun obento
Setsubun falls on a Friday this year which may or may not require you to make a bento for school. Why not up the ante and make it festival-themed? This may seem challenging, but the key is to make a demon face on an onigiri (rice ball) and maybe add horns of some kind— I’ve had good luck with baby corn. I promise it doesn’t have to look as good as these for your little one to get a kick out of it!
7. Read and learn about Setsubun
Some kids love getting information about the world from the written word. This is also especially useful if the idea of oni and bean throwing seems frightening to your child. If you have a budding Japanese reader on your hands, check out these great children’s books about Setsubun, available on Amazon:
So, get ready to prep your home for spring with a little helper armed with soybeans and don’t forget your demon mask! Happy Setsubun!