During the 8th month of the lunar calendar, the full moon heralds a special holiday for children in Vietnam. Historically this day was a time for predicting harvests and forecasting the year ahead, based on the color of the moon, weather patterns, and other seasonal phenomenon. The tradition of the “Mid-Autumn Festival” was inherited through Vietnam’s cultural influences from China though its origins are uncertain. Families prepare a variety of special cakes called “Mid-Autumn Cakes” and decorate candle-lit lanterns to celebrate the largest full moon of the year. Mid-Autumn cakes and fresh flowers are given as ancestral offerings to include all members of the family, even those who have passed away.
Among the charity groups I research, the Mid-Autumn festival is regarded as a fun and festive time to plan events for poor or orphaned children. Many charity groups plan parties at orphanages or bring fairs to impoverished rural areas. Children play games, win prizes, are gifted candy and school supplies. Ideally, volunteers and recipients alike can lose themselves in the magic of the night amidst song, dance, and the buttery glow of candle lanterns.
Over time, the Mid-Autumn festival became increasingly associated with children. During my conversations with charity volunteers, I heard two reasons for this change. First, I heard that in Vietnam’s traditional agricultural society, parents were so busy with the harvest season they were unable to give much attention to their children. Mid-Autumn became a night to reunite families and shower children with love and appreciation. Second, I heard that the association of Mid-Autumn with a humorous fairy-tale gave the holiday an increasingly child-like quality.
There are many variations of this story, but most contain two characters Chu Cuoi and Chi Hang. Chu Cuoi is often portrayed as a slapstick little man in brown while Chi Hang is an elegant, fairy-like woman in a silvery gown. In the story, Chu Cuoi found a magically powerful tree near his home. In one version, he warned his wife not to garden near the tree, but she disregarded him and went to plant some flowers by the roots. When she cut into the roots, the tree began to uproot itself and fly towards heaven. Chu Cuoi hurried out, clung to the branches, and was soon sky-rocketed up to the moon where he lives today. In another version, everyone knows not to pee at the base of this magic tree, except Chu Cuoi’s wife, who offends the tree and is shot up to the moon in its branches for her bad behavior. One volunteer told me that (no matter how the story goes), the Mid-Autumn full moon is the one time each year when this funny couple can return to earth, bringing treats and fun for everyone to celebrate with them. Many volunteer festivals end with a grand song and dance performance by Chu Cuoi and Chi Hang. I watched one brave Chi Hang climb up a ladder in a rainstorm to sing her song for a crowd of children, who circled her with their lanterns oblivious to (if not further excited by) the ankle-deep mud that flooded her show.
Mid-Autumn season is not without its problems. Some volunteers were concerned that the holiday had lost a lot of its traditional meaning – families no longer gather to home-make cakes and lanterns. One volunteer pointed out that the switch to plastic lanterns from bamboo lanterns meant the loss of a traditional craft and contributed to the country’s problems with trash and pollution. When I excitedly listed off all the kinds of Mid-Autumn cakes I had eaten, but remarked about how absurdly expensive they seemed, another friend told me that the price of cakes is high because they’ve become a common token of bribery. (Namely, to win favor with a boss or teacher, one might gift authority-figures an expensive, elaborate box of these cakes.)
These realities aside, others I spoke with regarded the Mid-Autumn festival as a magical time to pause and appreciate family, show love to children, and admire the beauty of nature. I join many kinds of charity projects, some of which can be very hard and heartbreaking. During this season, I got to enjoy the joy of joy. Watching crowds of children scream with glee over winning a game, smear themselves sticky with treats, and dance as only children can dance was a pure gift for me. I will always remember Mid-Autumn Festival fondly and will smile at the sight Chi Hang in the harvest moon.