There’s nothing like the first signs of Spring to make our senses blossom open from what can be a-longer-than-welcome hibernation during the winter months. While I’ve begun to welcome the wintertime quieting of my senses, it doesn’t take long for them to open again to rebirth and renewal. Alternating sunshine and rain showers turning our landscapes green, and bright bursts of colorful blossoms everywhere, make many of us want to go outside and soak it all in.
Speaking of going outside to admire the blooms, Spring is the time that cherry blossom festivals take place! This year, my home city celebrates the Nashville Cherry Blossom Festival on April 11th. This free event takes place in front of the Metro Courthouse and it’s not to be missed. You’ll find arts, crafts, and Japanese products for sale, food trucks with treats and temptations for the taste buds, children’s activities, and cultural performances that will have you in awe. It’s a rain or shine event that grows in popularity each year. You can even start the day with The Cherry Blossom Walk. Take a look at the graphics too, many designed by Studio Haus!
Cherry blossom symbolism dates back as far as 710, with origins connected to Japanese folk religions. Cherry blossoms were, and continue to be, a symbol of reproduction and new life. People saw the cherry tree as sacred, revering its powers to foretell the success of the season’s rice crop, so critical to the survival of the then-agrarian society.
Eventually the symbolism of the cherry tree crept into Japanese politics. In 1192, when the samurai rose to political power, cherry blossoms came to exemplify the noble character of the “Japanese soul”— men who do not fear death. When imperial nationalism arose in the 1800s, Japanese soldiers were rallied by being told “You shall die like beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor,” as cherry blossoms fall from their branches at the peak of their beauty.
Today the celebration of the annual spectacle of cherry trees blossoming in Japan continues. Japanese go on group outings to view their country’s trees, celebrating their splendor with cuisine, music, and performance: students get time off from lessons, companies take their employees on picnics, and neighborhoods organize their own viewings.
The fact that United States now celebrates cherry trees as well is due in large part to the tireless efforts of Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who, upon returning to Washington from her first visit to Japan in 1885, approached the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the proposal that cherry trees be planted along the Potomac waterfront. Although initially rejected, Scidmore did not give up, and in 1909 eventually won the attention of the new First Lady, Helen Herron Taft, who replied that “perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them."
In 1912, Japan gave the United States 3,000 cherry trees as an offering of friendship and political alliance. Appreciation for the trees in the U.S. continued to increase, and in the mid-1930s, the first-ever Cherry Blossom Festival was held in Washington, D.C.
For Japan, the March 2011 tsunami carried the symbolism of the cherry tree into recent times, as explained by a victim in the haunting and beautifully moving 2012 Oscar-nominated short documentary, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom: “Some people admire the cherry blossom for blooming after the earthquake. Some people resent the blossoms for looking so relaxed. When I see the cherry blossom, I see hope. I look at them and know that they’ll bloom no matter what.”
Another victim of that 9.0 magnitude earthquake shares this perspective: “Human existence is a moment compared to nature. So we need to be humble and appreciative and let the cherry blossom heal our sadness. I want to pass on this story every year we see cherry blossom season.”
The amity has gone full circle from the National Park Service back to Japan. Almost one hundred years later, 120 propagates from the surviving 1912 trees were sent back to Japan by NPS horticulturalists to maintain the trees’ genetic heritage.
While the symbolism of “the cycle of life, death and rebirth, on the one hand, and of productive and reproductive powers, on the other” remains intact for the cherry tree, the application of that symbolism has evolved throughout history. So it’s really no wonder we use festivals to celebrate such a seemingly fragile yet enduring piece of nature.
The 2015 Nashville Cherry Blossom Festival is held on Saturday, April 11th between 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM. The Cherry Blossom Walk takes place the same morning, beginning at 9:00 AM. The entire event is free and open to the public. Sponsorships and contributions to help foster the success of the festival are graciously accepted.