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Culture Focus

What It’s Like at Home

Thi Thanh Ha Doan June 24, 2020

Source: Michael Coyne / Getty Images

Mid-Autumn Festival might be internationally known as a Chinese holiday, but it is actually a festival with a variety of features celebrated in many other Asian communities. In Vietnam, Mid-Autumn Festival is commonly referred to as Children’s Day or Family Reunion Day. Like in many other countries following the lunar calendar, it is held on August 15th.

The preparation for Mid-Autumn Festival always begins two weeks before the celebration. During this time, like many other kids living in Hanoi, our parents used to take my brother and me to Hang Ma street. It would be filled with colorful lanterns in all shapes and sizes, or funny animal masks and other eye-catching toys. This is one of a few times in the year that we were allowed to buy whatever we wanted and able to enjoy all the sweet street food, like ice cream or kẹo bông. The street was always in a vibrant and cheerful atmosphere, so we would normally stay there and wander around with other kids until the middle of the night.

The circus and theatre are also busy and full with kids at this time. In the past, we often found ourselves watching the famous folk of Mid-Autumn Festival, “Chu Cuoi and Chi Hang.” The story began when our main character, Chu Cuoi, discovered a magical banyan tree that could heal any injuries you could think of. One day, his wife (a princess actually) watered the tree with her urine and made it fly away from the Earth. Deeply treasuring the tree, Chu Cuoi hung tight on it and was pulled up to the moon. It is common in the Mid-Autumn Festival for children to light lanterns and shine them outside, towards the moon and stars with the hope that Chu Cuoi will be shown the way back to Earth.

While the Mid-Autumn Festival initially began in Vietnam as a day of worshipping the moon and wishing for a full harvest, it has become more of a cultural celebration instead of a religious one. iIt is a day of family gathering, and offering gratitude to each other. As we have grown up, most of our Mid-Autumn Festival is now spent with family. My town, usually called Cot Village, is a small one with a rich tradition base. People have lived here for generations and know each other by name. Indeed being inside the bubble of Hanoi, it has changed drastically and become more crowded and city-like, yet those who were born here still remain in place and keep the town’s tradition alive. My extended family and relatives all live close together in this town, and it only takes us 30 to 40 walking steps to go to the house of one another. This is an advantage when it comes to planning celebration events for our big family, which is exactly what we annually do during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

My favorite year of the festival was 2018 because our house was chosen as the location. For the first time, I got to take charge of the planning the gathering.. Children and adults arrived at my house in the morning to start decorating. Each one had a job, from blowing the balloons and sticking them around the house to moving the tables and hanging the lanterns. Yet, the most important job of all time has been preparing the “Mâm cỗ.”

“Mâm cỗ” is a lavish tray of festive food set up in the yard as a way of offering gratitude to ancestors and Earth God for a successful harvest season. It generally contains regional fruits -dragonfruit, persimmon, grapes, bananas-in funny animal imitations, carp-shaped or

star-shaped lanterns, and mooncake. In Vietnam there are two common flavors of mooncake: traditionally mixed and bean-paste. The traditionally mixed is a sophisticated one to make with a wide combination of ingredients, such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and lemon leaves, to create a rich salted taste, while the green bean-paste is for those having a sweet tooth. Nowadays young people start to get more creative and incorporate different ingredients into the cake like matcha or chocolate. Regardless, all the mooncakes are round in shape, symbolizing the moon, family reunion and fulfillment.

A “Mâm cỗ” from our 2018 Mid-Autumn Festival

My favorite part is always the lion dance which is believed to give blessings and could only be seen during this time of the year. At night, groups of children and teenagers parade throughout the streets, going from door to door to perform the lion dance. It is a fascinating and exciting scene with the unique sound of the drums vibrating all over the town as the comical “lion” dances and kids in brightly colored clothes follow behind singing along some Mid-Autumn Festival’s traditional songs. As they passed our house, we immediately invited them inside to give their performance and gave them ‘lucky’ money afterwards as a way to show gratitude.

Last part is “phá cỗ”, or in another words celebrating the feast by savouring the food on previously prepared “Mâm cỗ”. This happens near midnight when the moon is at its brightest and roundest. All the kids gathered around this food tray in my yard as tension increased about who got what fruits or which type of Mooncake. We ran wild around the house and even the street playing folk games with our lanterns or joined the lion dance parade.

Although this year I might not be able to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival with my family anymore, it remains one of my dearest days. I am touched that, despite the intrusion of technology and increasing modernization, our family still finds ways to continue and maintain these ancient traditions alive for younger generations so we would still hold these cultural beauty within us wherever we go. I might be unable to return to my country next festival, but just as I was taught to believe, during this day if I gaze at the moon, it would send my love and regards to my family thousand of miles away, which I hope they would receive fast and well.

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