One fun part about living as an expat is encountering your favorite familiar traditions with a foreign twist. It has always interested me to see what is universally honored around the world, and also to note the incredible variety in how different cultures can celebrate the same themes.

My first experience with this was two years ago in China, when a Chinese co-worker dropped some chocolate on my desk in August and told me “Happy Chinese Valentine’s Day!”

It was actually Qixi Festival, a Chinese holiday that also celebrates love and romance. It’s held on the seventh day of the seventh month on their lunar calendar. The name translates to “Evening of Sevens.”

This year it’s coming up soon on August 28th.

A Love Story

Although there are several versions of the myth behind this festival, they all center around a couple who were forbidden to be together, forcibly separated, but who find a way back to each other once a year for one night – on the seventh day of the seventh month.

In the most common version of the story, the girl is a fairy and the youngest daughter of the Goddess of Heaven. She often finds herself bored with with her celestial life, and she sneaks off to Earth to have a little fun.

During one of her trips, she meets a mortal boy – a cow herder – and falls in love. They marry secretly, even have a couple of children, and the fairy manages to keep her double life hidden for years.

But eventually the Goddess of Heaven discovers her daughter’s secret. She is forced to return to the heavenly realm, never to come back to Earth again, separated from her children and husband.

Some versions of this story detail how the cow herder tries return to his wife, even by disguising himself with the hide of his dead ox. But ultimately, he cannot reach her.

It is a romantic story, but it is also heartbreaking. The only moment of joy comes briefly once a year, during the Qixi Festival, when legend says a flock of magpies intervene for the lovers. They create a bridge so the two can reunite for one night, but only one night.

Traditional Celebrations

So how exactly is Qixi Festival celebrated?

Needlework is practiced, as this was a talent of the wife in the story. Competitions are often held among unmarried women.

Prayers are offered to the couple, usually for a good and happy marriage.

Offerings of paper, fruits, flowers, or tea are also made at local temples.

Divination is sometimes practiced to predict a future spouse or the happiness of a marriage.

Women might wear a special face powder believed to help them mirror the beauty of the fairy wife.

People will search for constellations in the sky, keeping an eye out for the bridge of magpies reuniting the separated lovers.

Rain is considered a bad omen. If a storm comes, it is believed that the river has washed away the bridge of magpies before the lovers could come together. The rain symbolizes the overflowing river and the tears of the heartbroken couple.

The biggest difference between the western Valentine’s Day and the Chinese Qixi Festival is that Qixi is primarily for unmarried people. Newlyweds couples only celebrate one final time, to say goodbye to the mythological couple.

Have you ever celebrated Qixi Festival in China? How did you think it compared to Valentine’s Day at home? Do you prefer one over the other?