The renowned meditation master and social visionary Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche established Children's Day in 1979 for his western students and their children. The holiday, which took place each year on the 25th of December (It was later moved to December 21st), provided an uplifted and magical celebration for children, and a way of empowering them with a sense of their own dignity, sanity and goodness.
I happened to be around when Rinpoche was arranging the first Children's Day shrine. It was a thing of beauty and playfulness. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have any photographs of that first shrine. After witnessing it's creation, I felt a strong connection to Children's Day. I remember thinking at the time that someone should write an origin-of-Childrens-Day story. Otherwise the holiday would have no narrative.
Then came Christmas 1987. Elizabeth Pybus, Rinpoche's mother-in-law, was entertaining some of her English friends and enjoying a very English Christmas dinner. I happened to be there as well. During the dinner, one of her friends asked Mrs Pybus what Children's Day was. There was a Children's Day shrine in the dinning room, so it was a natural topic of conversation. Lady Pybus turned to me and asked, "Walter, tell us the story of Children's Day." Of course there was no story, but she didn't know that.
In the moment, I didn't want to say, "Sorry, there is no story." So I excused myself to the kitchen and tried to come up with something to say. I came up blank, went back to the dining room, and looked around for inspiration. There was a little toy soldier on the Children's Day shrine. I picked it up and started to tell a story about this little soldier boy named Jigme who overheard his parents talking about the days getting shorter, and decided to go into the wilderness alone to find the sun. It was very simple; it couldn't have taken more than ten minutes to tell, but it seemed to satisfy Mrs Pybus and friends. At least they were too polite to say otherwise. Later that evening I wrote down the story of Jigme on a scrap of paper and forgot about it.
The next year our family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. As I was unpacking, I found the scrap of paper and started to work on it a little bit. For a while it became a favorite bedtime story for our oldest daughter Catherine Iliana. (Catherine was our only child at the time old enough really get into bedtime stories.) Over the next few years the songs emerged, the story got a bit more elaborate, and Jigme became Iliana, the girl who brought the sun home to the kingdom. In 1992 I read Iliana to the children at the Halifax Shambhala Center. The next day the father of an eight year old boy told me that when his son came home, he said, "Now I know the true meaning of Children's Day." I think that was the moment when I first started to think that Iliana might someday become a book.
I worked on the story more intensively in '94 and '95, and by the end of '95 it was published with a print run of 4000 books. Tatjana's vivid and cheerful illustrations really brought the story to life, and the book sold well to Buddhist families. But people outside the Buddhist community enjoyed the book as well. Five years later the books were all sold, and ever since Iliana was out of print until 2012.
In many ways, Iliana fills a need that naturally presents itself at the end of December. All the world is geared toward celebrating something, but many people no longer have much of a connection with the original meaning behind the celebration. Iliana presents an additional or alternative reason for the season. The Children's Day celebration that happens spontaneously at the end of the story, is inspiring and non-sectarian. It presents basic human values of courage, dignity, inner strength, and wisdom without entering into the realm of religion.
The songs -- sheet music and mp3 recordings -- are available on the "songs" tab above. Over the years meditation centers, schools and churches have staged productions of Iliana with children singing the songs and dancing like tigers, lions, garudas, and dragons. You are warmly invited to stage local productions and pageants based on the story. Please let us know what you're planning. We'd love to hear about it, and if there are recordings of your local performance (audio or video), we'd love to see them and maybe post them on the site as well.
Wishing all a very Cheerful Children's Day,