The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival falls on the full moon of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (October 4 in 2017).
I’ve always loved this holiday that marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, the half that is correlated with the yin or feminine element. In some parts of China, it was celebrated only by women, who gathered in a courtyard and created an altar with a statue of the Jade Rabbit, who lives at the center of the moon. They drank tea and dined on moon cakes and fruits that symbolize fertility, like pomegranates, grapes, apples, melons, and peaches. I like to serve honeydew melon and lemon-balm tea (since lemon balm is an herb of the moon).
It is also a harvest festival, associated with gathering with family, giving thanks, and praying for blessings. Burning incense carries the prayers to the moon, and poems are written in the moon’s honor. Cassia wine, made fragrant by the addition of osmanthus blossoms, is the traditional drink in China.
In Japan, this full moon festival is called Tsukimi and is celebrated with moon-viewing parties and poetry. Rice dumplings (similar to mochi) and sake are served, and pampas grass is used as a decoration.
There is even a special term for the festival when the moon is not seen: “Ugetsu,” or “rain-moon.” That was the case this year in Seattle when my niece and I attended a moon-viewing festival at the Japanese garden. We drank tea, admired the lit lanterns, ate mochi, and listened to haiku and music, all while a gentle rain pattered down.
In Vietnam, this moon festival is known as Tet Trung Thu and is the second most important holiday in the year. Originally, it acknowledged the dragon who brings rain to grow the crops. It eventually became associated with the harvest and fertility. Now it is sometimes called the Children’s Festival – because children are considered to be closer to nature because of their innocence – and is observed with parades of children carrying lanterns shaped like stars.
The festival also expanded as it traveled to other countries. In Korea, this harvest moon is a time to honor the ancestors. The traditional food is songpyeon – rice cakes steamed over burning pine needles. The wrapper resembles the full moon when empty and the half moon when stuffed with a filling that might include sesame seeds, black beans, mung beans, pine nuts, walnuts, chestnuts, cinnamon, jujube, and honey.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
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