Eating the moon

(No.7, Vol.4,Aug-Sep 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Mid-Autumn Festival in Bac Lieu Province. 
Photo: Dang Ke Cuong

Mid-Autumn celebrations bring sweet remembrances

Every year, by the end of the seventh lunar month, Saigon’s bustling sidewalks get even busier with kiosks selling mid-Autumn cakes in typical colourful wrapping and packaging. Lanterns of all sizes and shapes also add to the city’s overall vibrancy. At the same time, in many places of Vietnam’s most populous city, groups of youngsters perform the unicorn dance to the resounding beats of drums and gongs. These are the sounds and colours of most of cities and villages of Vietnam at this time of the year. It all makes Vietnamese feel some nostalgia for their childhood, including me.
Early in the eighth lunar month, the sickle-shaped new moon cast its dim light on poor villages without a single electric bulb. I eagerly began working on my lantern with coloured paper, bamboo splints, banana fibres and a candle. Even food was scarce at the time, but we village kids tried by every means possible to have a self-made simple and awkward lantern.
When the sky darkened, we fussily called each other and marched together, a lantern in everyone’s hand, around the village of a few hundred mud houses with straw roofs.I vividly remember nearly 50 lanterns casting red and yellow lights and swinging with each young step along the village’s small zigzagging roads. There was always some little one crying because of having slipped and destroyed their lantern.Around the 10th, we all gathered to make a unicorn head with bamboo splints, coloured paper and copper wire. We used some banana leaves to make the body and tail.
Our mixed procession of a unicorn, percussion instruments and lanterns went round and round in the village, heating up the quiet village life and lighting up the adults’ smiles.
On mid-Autumn (the middle of the 8th lunar month) night, we all came to the village temple. There was a gala, organized by the village youth. Our show was always the centre piece, bright and exuberant, after which, each of us was rewarded with a handful of candies. It was the most blissful treat during that time of destitution, and we showed our gratitude with shouts and cries. After the show we continued our dancing procession till late at the night.
At that time, my village was my whole world, and I was so proud that only my village had mid-Autumn celebration. Later I learned that it is celebrated in many Asian countries. I also learned that in many places, it is a festive time, not only for children, but also for adults to compose poems, to contemplate the moon, to worship the moon god, and to make sweets for each other.In my teenage years, I learned many other interesting facts about this festival. For example, in the past, people used to watch the moon on this night not only as a refined pastime, but also to guess about the harvest, the weather, or the nation’s fortune by the colour of the moon. Yellow meant a good silk harvest; blue or green meant bad weather; and bright orange meant prosperity for the country. I also learned many beautiful pieces of poetry and music about the festival. 

Making lanterns in Hanoi. 
Photo: Nguyen Ba Ngoc

As mid-Autumn is in everybody’s heart, in their spiritual life and literature, I got curious about its origin.There are many legends related to the Vietnamese and Chinese origin of this festival, but the most famous one is, perhaps, that of Tang Ming Huang’s visit to the moon.The story goes, in that mid-Autumn night, while having a stroll in his garden and enjoying the moonlight, the Emperor met an angel disguised as an old man with snow-white hair and a beard. The angel drew a rainbow to take the Emperor to the moon. When he returned to the world, missing the mythical scenes on the moon, the Emperor decreed that his folk had to celebrate mid-Autumn every year with lanterns and parties.
In 1989, I was 18. Vietnamese economy began to thrive. I saw changes in the mid-Autumn celebration too. The lanterns and unicorns of the village kids were bigger, more diverse, and made of better materials.

Mid-Autumn Festival in Ho Chi Minh City. 
Photo: Ngo Thi Thu Ba

10 years later, it was unrecognizable. Kids all over the country don’t make lanterns and unicorns anymore; their parents buy it all for them. Candles are replaced with battery-fuelled lights. The lanterns are more diversified in designs, colours and materials. Some local governments even make gigantic lanterns and invite thousands of children to celebrate together.Nowadays, the adults plan the celebration, from gift-buying to house decoration, and buy the lantern to hang in the house instead of letting the kids carry it.Some even take the occasion to do charity work, such as buying lanterns and sweets for children in poor remote places.The most boisterous activity of the adults is to give Mid-Autumn sweets as present; businesses and government organizations give it to their clients, their employees, students give it to their teachers, people give it to their parents, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers.Capitalizing on this demand, in recent years, many food companies compete in making mid-Autumn sweet cakes. The most famous brands are Kinh Do and Dong Khanh.With houses full of these gifts, people treat their guests with mid-Autumn sweets and tea, and together they recall the mid-Autumns of times long past. Old people say that using mid-Autumn sweets as gift used to be an old custom in our culture, but during the difficult times, we just couldn’t follow it.Through research, I learned that Mid-Autumn sweets are soaked with spirituality. A typical folk tale goes that once upon a time, on this day every year, people used to sacrifice fruits, flowers and a cake in the form of the moon to the Moon God. Because the cake was made in the middle of autumn, it was called mid-Autumn cake. And after this sacred ritual, the whole family gathered to enjoy the cake with tea, to converse and enjoy the moon light. So the cake was also called the cake of family unity.

Lantern parade in Mid-Autumn Festival 2012, in Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan Province, recognized as the biggest Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam by the Vietnam Guinness Book of Records. Photos: Do Huu Tuan

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