|Fun for all: Lion dances are held at schools because not all neighbourhoods can afford to have their own teams. — VNA/VNS Photo Duong Ngoc
One of the biggest celebrations of the year, the Mid Autumn festival brings families together to share food and fun. Nguyen My Ha reports.
Every year, children anxiously look forward to the Mid Autumn festival, the last festive occasion for them to celebrate until the Lunar New Year. This year's festival falls on Monday, September 8, but the festivities will be held over the weekend as people have to work and children have to go to school on Monday. Through the long summer vacation, the children have had time to prepare for this festival: crafting items themselves; making fruit decoration pieces; practicing a unicorn dance; and running in long lines around the residential neighbourhood, holding lanterns in their hands.
Having grown up in a period of economic hardship during the post-war years of the 1980s, I saw first-hand that no matter how limited our community's resources were, our joy would not turn to despair and our celebrations would not grind to a halt. I still remember how, on the eve of the full moon of the eighth lunar month, the lady in charge of our neighbourhood's welfare came to our house and spent time explaining to my parents that the district officials had reserved small gifts for their two children. The gift was one-eighth of a moon cake– 30-40 grams of sweet cake containing the traditional stuffing of peanuts, lotus seed sweets, sugar-marinated lard, sugar-preserved pumpkin, and pork sausage flavoured with julienned lemon leaves.
Although it was very tiny compared to today's sweet treats, it kicked off our own neighbourhood festival.
This year, our festival started with a trip to Hang Ma Street to buy lanterns. I had hoped to buy only the frames, so we could glue on the sheets of coloured transparent film ourselves. Unfortunately, we only found readymade lanterns in the market that day and returned home quite disappointed.
Today, parents, especially mothers, will get together to draw up an activity plan to get the children involved in the process much earlier, allowing them to play together and make their own moon cakes.
Thanks to the Internet, recipes for moon cakes are no longer a secret. Many housewives can make their own delicious moon cakes, or they can easily buy them off the shelf at stores.
One week before the festival, a group of mothers assembles to share the work of making their own moon cakes. "We have been doing this for a few years now," says Nguyen Thuy Hoang, 37, a mother of three children, aged 8 months, 7 years and 9 years.
"The first gathering was a disaster," she says. "Everything in my house was covered in sticky rice flour. But we have made progress, and this year, it has been so much fun for all of us."
|Entrepreneur: Le Ngoc Thu, a self-taught baker who makes her own moon cakes, sells them online in addition to working at her day job. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
Nguyen Kim Yen, 43, also a mother of three, says, "My five-year-old son had such a good time that he asked me when we'd get together to make moon cakes again!"
Unlike other festivals, the spirit of the Mid- Autumn festival has nothing to do with deciding who made the best cake or who presented the most beautiful fruit tray decoration. Rather, it is intended to foster community spirit by bringing neighbours together on a beautiful moonlit night.
In Ha Noi, typical festival activities include drawing paper masks; making lanterns – especially star-shaped ones – and joining a procession that runs around the grounds, singing Mid-Autumn songs. A drum team accompanies the entourage for the lion dance to encourage people to join the procession.
I remember, when the festival was first launched, our parents, with their limited wages, could not afford to buy lanterns for us. Instead, we took tips from shows on our black-and-white televisions, where we would watch a crafts master guide us through the steps to make our own lanterns or games.
For the fruit trays, we got even more creative. The bright moon, long associated with the Jade Rabbit, inspired countless creations of fruit trays accentuated with a white or pink rabbit made from a grapefruit
Five years ago, we left our warm, friendly neighbourhood and moved to an apartment complex. That year, we celebrated the festival with the least amount of money possible, and the atmosphere was still filled with fun and frivolity. Children went out in their roller skates, holding lanterns and singing Mid-Autumn songs. They had the time of their lives.
|Modern marketing: Thu's moon cakes are popular among young female professionals who do their shopping online. — VNS Photo Ngoc Thu
For the food decorations, mothers brought out whatever items they had prepared at home: moon cakes, grapefruit, sweets and persimmons. The decorations were not as ornate or delicate as those we had seen in the Old Quarters, but the atmosphere was joyful and pleasant. No one was stressed out from spending too much or working too long. We offered whatever we had readily available, and the outcome was better than anyone had expected.
Throughout Viet Nam, on this day, a festive atmosphere prevails, spurred on by the loud beats of a giant drum and the accompanying entourage.
A friend of mine from Ha Noi, who has been living in Ho Chi Minh City for nearly 20 years, says she misses the community spirit she felt in the North.
"Here, in our neighbourhood, the chairman of our ward has also arranged a small party for the children in our alley, but we live our lives in isolation, like others do in big cities in the West. We do not have that community spirit that I crave. But I hope this will change for the better."
The Mid-Autumn festival is not limited to Viet Nam but is celebrated across East Asia. China, the Philippines and Malaysia, to name a few countries, have also joined in the festivities. This could be because the custom of predicting the weather according to sightings of the moon may be associated with the wet rice culture, which is widespread in the south of China and in Southeast Asian countries, sociologists say.
|Festivities: Children in Ha Noi's Old Quarter Hang Dao Ward get together to enjoy the Mid Autumn Festival. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh
Legend has it that a boy named Cuoi, who was known for his habit of compulsive lying, was distracted by the moon while tending his water buffalo, and he soon wandered off to play. The buffalo ate all the rice in the field while he was gone. When this was discovered, Cuoi lied about it and was hanged, from a banyan tree, as a punishment. The tree flew up to the moon, and Cuoi has been there ever since, barred from returning to his home on Earth.
This Vietnamese legend about Cuoi the Liar may differ from one country to the next, but all of them share a love of the beautiful Autumn moon and see it as a cause for celebration.
Despite the emphasis on children, the Mid-Autumn festival is not exclusively for them. It's also an important occasion for farmers to view the full moon to predict the weather for the rest of the year, even as far ahead as the next Lunar New Year Festival.
Gardeners in the peach blossom village of Nhat Tan usually look at the Mid-Autumn full moon to plan their cultivation schedule so that their flowers will bloom just in time for the Lunar New Year, four months later.
In 2006, I had interviewed gardener Nguyen Tien Duc from the Nhat Tan Village, and he had said, "This year, I saw a great deal of chicken-fat-coloured haze around the Autumn full moon. Thus, the Lunar New Year of 2007 will be warm."
It happened exactly as he had said: The Lunar New Year of 2007 was so warm that no one could wear their carefully tailored coats or jackets. Gardener Duc had seen into the future, just by gazing at the full moon. — VNS