How We Celebrated the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival
By Wendy Gaus
The whole neighborhood gets into the spirit of an adoptive family's celebration of Tet Trung Thu.
"We Need A Bigger Turkey", by Christopher Cerf and Norman Stiles is one of my favorite children's poems. It's about a family who plans a feast to celebrate their family pride. Initially, they telephone the butcher to order just enough turkey to feed themselves, but as they get into the spirit of the celebration, their guest list grows to include all the people they hold near and dear such as grandparents, cousins, babysitters and neighbors. With each new guest, the beleaguered butcher is summoned to locate a turkey large enough to feed the ever-expanding group. A similar phenomenon occurred recently in Rohnert Park, California as my daughter, Sadie, and I attempted to show our pride in her Vietnamese heritage by celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.
When I adopted Sadie on October 8, 1998 in Thai Nguyen, Viet Nam - a province about 2 hours northeast of Hanoi - she was only 5 and a half months old, and really too young to have clear memories of her homeland. Over this past year, I have looked for opportunities to introduce her culture to her. This has been more difficult than I anticipated. One problem is that I've had difficulty finding a definitive source of information that clearly explains Vietnamese holidays, customs and traditions. As such, I have relied heavily on what I can learn over the Internet and specifically on information shared on the Adoptive Parents of Vietnam List (APV). In fact, that's where my story begins.
One day early last September, an APV parent requested information about a Vietnamese holiday called the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. I had never heard of this particular celebration and the writer provided only minimal information. I turned to the Internet and quickly learned that the purpose of this festival is to give thanks for the rice harvest. It's celebrated in a variety of Asian countries including China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam on the 15th day of the eighth month when the moon is fullest and brightest. This year, it fell on September 24th.
While all of these countries share many of the same traditions associated with this festival, each country has also developed its own distinct customs. For example, in China, people buy or make colorful paper lanterns in a variety of different shapes and when it's dark, candles are placed inside and the lanterns glow like little moons. The Chinese eat mooncakes made with sweet fillings and marked with Chinese symbols. Japanese families believe that the harvest moon purifies the evils of the world and celebrate the moon by eating rice dumplings called "tsukimi dango." Korean families eat rice cakes called "songpyon" and visit family ancestors' tombs making food offerings.
The Chinese first introduced this festival to the Vietnamese when they colonized them thousands of years ago. I'm told that many years later, when the French invaded Viet Nam, the French were concerned that the Vietnamese would try to plan a revolt and so all public gatherings were outlawed. That's when the Vietnamese shifted their festival's focus to a celebration of children. The benefits of this shift were twofold. First, families were able to pass down traditional culture to their children and second, the French, fearless of this seemingly harmless celebration, allowed them to gather and this aided the Vietnamese as they planned their uprising which would ultimately regain them control of their country.
Today, the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival continues to honor children with special midnight feasts, lighted lanterns decorated with symbols of Vietnamese animals, traditional dragon and unicorn dances and street parades with children carrying lanterns and noisemakers. For special treats parents mold familiar animals out of tasty colored sticky rice. The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is rated second only to Tet as the most favorite Vietnamese holiday.
The more I learned about the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the more I knew I wanted to celebrate it with Sadie, but my biggest challenge was figuring out exactly how it was celebrated and why these traditions were followed. While lots of information was available about the Chinese Festival, Vietnamese traditions were less reported and distinguishing between the two cultures' activities was often confusing because of contradictory information.
Clearly, I wanted to avoid hosting a celebration in the style of Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" where the well intentioned, but inexperienced folks in Halloween Town try to duplicate Christmas traditions with macabre results. While I strove for authenticity and accuracy, I was clearly a fish out of water, however, after much consideration, I decided to go forth doing my best to be as accurate as possible. This was going to be a learning experience for all of us.
Initially, I planned to invite only my immediate family to a small get-together, but when my next door neighbor heard about my plans, she asked if her children could be included. I suggested we hold a small parade in my back yard. Then I casually mentioned these plans to Sadie's daycare provider who also expressed an interest in our makeshift celebration. Later that day when I picked Sadie up, I was approached by many of the daycare parents who had heard about our celebration and wanted to join in the fun.
Word about the celebration was spreading fast and so I typed up a short announcement providing a description of the holiday and my plans for celebrating it. I suggested that interested guests meet in front of my house at sundown on the evening of September 24th. Soon invitations were placed in every mailbox within a 2-block radius of our home. This was not really done because I expected neighbors to participate, but more to prepare them for the noise that was bound to disturb their normally peaceful environment.
Our festival was growing by leaps and bounds. It was now becoming a full-fledged neighborhood event much like I imagine the celebrations in Viet Nam. Since the feast is an integral part of this celebration, I tried to come up with a sampling of traditional foods that the children might like. Fortunately, I live and work in areas with excellent Asian markets and I turned to them for help. I was told to prepare a feast consisting of melon seeds, Asian gummy candies, mango and yam puddings, fruit kabobs and, of course, the traditional mooncakes. Luckily I taste-tested the mooncakes before the party. These cakes are filled with a sweet filling and, to my surprise, a whole, salty, hardboiled egg. THIS IS DEFINITELY AN ACQUIRED TASTE! I quickly expanded our menu to include some rather untraditional sugar cookies for the less adventurous guests.
Quite by accident, I found a local store selling traditional paper lanterns. I bought a slew of them and attached them to balsa wood sticks so that the kids could carry them in our parade, however, instead of candles, I illuminated our paper moon lanterns with flashlights. (I know that candles have been used safely for generations, but I preferred not to risk it.) I also found the dragon water puppets I'd bought in Hanoi, so that some of the kids could create impromptu dragon dances.
By 7:30 PM on the evening of September 24th, I had prepared a table of traditional foods and displayed some of my prized souvenirs from Viet Nam. I played traditional music and lit some incense (a gift from a Vietnamese friend who constructed a little ancestor altar for Sadie's birth mom.) It was unclear whether the Vietnamese honored ancestors at these Festivals, but it seemed like a nice idea to me and so we included this feature in our celebration.
I dressed Sadie in a borrowed ao dai and coolie hat and together we ventured forth to see who would be waiting on our front lawn to participate in our first Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and parade. To my astonishment, 15 families and well over 24 children were waiting for us. I really hadn't planned any kind of a formal presentation, but since everyone was looking at me, I decided to share a few of the facts I'd learned about the festival's history. In keeping with Vietnamese tradition, I also directed a brief speech to the children about what it takes to be a good citizen (in this case, I urged the children to follow bike safety rules, study hard, not litter and be respectful of one another). I also shared some of the crafts and artwork Sadie and I brought back from our trip to Hanoi.
Then it was time for our children's parade. Since I hadn't expected so many children to attend, my neighbors and I hastily scoured our kitchens for pots and pans and other noisemakers, and I even found some Vietnamese percussion instruments I'd bought for Sadie. The goal was for every child to carry either a noisemaker or a lantern in the parade. Armed with these items, the children, surrounded by loving parents, marched through the typically quite streets of Rohnert Park, celebrating our pride and joy in what I hoped was traditional Vietnamese style. Neighbors who did not attend our celebration emerged from their homes to watch the spectacle and offer approval in the form of applause.
Sadie was in seventh heaven. She is very social and loves large crowds. She marched along with all the other children, waving her lantern, holding her head up high, smiling with every step, and for the first time ever, keeping her hat on!
After the parade, we returned home to consume our feast. No sooner had the last melon seed and gummy candy been swallowed, than the children voted to have a second parade. By this time, a friend of Sadie's who was also adopted from Viet Nam, showed up wearing her ao dai. The two girls happily lead the parade as the fullest, brightest moon I'd ever seen appeared in the sky. Then, as I'm sure happens in Viet Nam, our festival turned into an opportunity for busy neighbors to get reacquainted and strengthen the bonds of our community. I met a new neighbor and learned that she had adopted her two children from the Ukraine. Neighbors urged her to share stories about their culture as well.
All in all, our Mid-Autumn Moon festival was a resounding success and we have pledged to do it again next year. I was touched by the enthusiastic interest my neighbors showed in learning about Sadie's homeland and of her heritage. In a day and age when people struggle to build communities, I feel fortunate to be a part of mine. I also realize and appreciate that my neighborhood's participation and attitudes will not only broaden their personal understanding of a new culture, but will help shape Sadie's sense of pride in her heritage.
If I were a poet like Christopher Cerf or Norman Stiles, I'd write a poem about the plans for our glorious celebration of Sadie's culture. Perhaps I'd call it, "We Need A Bigger Mooncake."