One week from today, on Tuesday, September 25, remember the moon. For the upcoming holiday, called Tet Trung Thu in Vietnamese (Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival in English) the moon will be at its biggest and brightest this year.
That night, you may be inspired to croon like Dean Martin, “When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” For many Vietnamese people, that glorious moon won’t signal a cheesy pizza, but rather a moon cake – an ancient sweet of Chinese origin that goes back to the Yuan Dynasty (1280 AD-1368 AD). We savor tiny wedges of moon cake with fragrant tea as we gaze at the moon, thinking of family, friends, and the blessings we’ve had throughout the year. The roundness of the moon also embodies unity, harmony and family so this is a holiday of reflection.
The annual celebration occurs on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar (usually in mid to late September every year). It began during the Xia and Shang Dynasties (2000 BCE-1066 BCE) in China as an agricultural harvest holiday. Vietam, heavily influenced by Chinese culture (they were there for a good 1,000 years), celebrates the Mid-Autumn Festival too. Among all the Viet celebrations, Tet Trung Thu (pronounced “teht troong too”) is second to Tet Nguyen Dan (Lunar New Year) in terms of importance.
Children, Lanterns and Legends
As a harvest
festival, the holiday typically occurs after the field work has been done and
all that’s left to do is harvest the rice. It’s a moment of rest for hardworking
farmers and peasants, who take pause to lavish attention on their children.
In the past, during the growing season, adults were intensely laboring in the
fields and their children were left to fend for themselves. At this time of the
year, the focus turns to the kids and parents spend their respite having fun
with their families and friends.
Echoing the glow of the moon, tons of lanterns are present during the holiday. Children traditionally parade and dance on the streets all the while carrying colorfully lit lanterns. I have fond memories of stretching over the balcony railing of our home in Saigon to watch the lanterns pass by. They were made of cellophane glued on bamboo frames. Lit inside with a candle, they often caught on fire and we’d stare and laugh in shock and amazement at their fleeting beauty. It was a frequent holiday hazard that permanently put the smell of burning cellophane in my olfactory database.
Hoi An, a quaint tourist town in central Vietnam puts out huge displays of silk lanterns during this holiday. They're conveniently lit by electricity, which makes me miss the adventure of the old ones. (Note that in Malaysia and Singapore, this holiday is called the Lantern Festival.)
There are also many legends that are dragged out and retold. The Chinese have the story of Chang Er, a woman who took the immortal pill and became so lightweight that she floated to the moon. My favorite is a Vietnamese story about a man named Chu Cuoi who discovered a magic banyan tree whose leaves possessed healing powers. He uprooted the tree and planted it in his yard. When he tried to harvest leaves from the tree, the tree uprooted itself. As the banyan lifted off the ground, Chu Cuoi grabbed onto the roots and went upward with the tree, eventually landing on the moon. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, people try to make out the shadow of Chu Cuoi and the magic banyan tree.
In a different telling of the story, Chu Cuoi sought to protect the sanctity of the healing tree by forbidding anyone from urinating at the foot of the tree. His wife, Chi Hang, forgot his rule and did her business at the tree. It uprooted and she hung on for dear life, only to end up on the moon as her punishment for desecrating the magic tree.
Legends are never neat and tidy. Nevertheless, it’s good to note that across cultures, we’re all looking for that man or woman in the moon. Next Tuesday is a perfect opportunity to do so.
For more on the children's focus of this holiday, check out these Youtube videos:
- Lantern dance (From Vietnam, note the popular star lanterns)
- Chu Cuoi story (From Vietnam, kitschy set)
- Little Saigon TV coverage of 2006 Tet Trung Thu show for kids
- Detailed retelling of Chu Cuoi children's story (non-urination version
- Mid-Autumn Festival history and background (lots of Chinese information)
- Lantern popularity for 2005 Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam