Lighting Lanterns and Munching on Mooncakes

Published September 21, 2015 in Episode 22

Whenever I hear a children’s song about Tết Trung Thu, I can smell the aroma of mooncakes in the air and imagine the sight of children smiling as they dance with lanterns. It gives me a sense of nostalgia as this autumn celebration comes into full gear.

As a little boy, I remember eating a slice of savory mooncake, along with going to the local festival with my favorite lantern. It was shaped like a fish, with colorful scales and a flickering light in the middle.

“Tết Trung Thu comes from Việt Nam’s culture of rice cultivation, which began in the Red River Delta,” according to Vietnamese language teacher Hoàng Vũ, who is with the Association of Vietnamese Language and Culture Schools of Southern California.

Vũ explains that Tết Trung Thu marks an important time in Vietnamese country life.

“Every year, after the harvest season was completed, under the full moon, when temperatures are cooler, the peasants and villagers would gather in the spirit of giving thanks, and take a moment’s rest while they gaze at the moon, savor mooncake with fragrant tea, and the children sing and dance."

Kids love Tết Trung Thu for the mooncakes, and especially the lanterns. In fact, in one version of the legend about this festival, children light up lanterns and walk around the village at night to help chú Cuội, a poor woodcutter, find his friends on Earth from the moon.

According to this legend, chú Cuội and his wife, chị Hằng, had a magical tree whose leaves provided healing powers to those who touched it. Chú Cuội told his wife that the tree needed to be watered daily with water from a special well in order to preserve its powers. However, one day, she forgot to water the tree. She noticed chú Cuội coming home from work, so without any time to grab water from the well, she urinated onto the tree. The tree became angry and began to fly away. Chú Cuội saw the tree flying away and attempted to save it by seizing the tree by its roots. He failed, and the magical tree pulled chú Cuội to the moon, where he remains to this day.

To help chú Cuội find his way back home, children would make a fire hoping its light would reach the moon. Fires were not enough, however, so children built lanterns of all shapes and sizes. This became part of the moonlit procession to usher chú Cuội’s journey home.

Nowadays, you can buy cheap, imported lanterns in the shapes of popular cartoon characters at any supermarket. But before, kids and adults crafted elaborate creations of different shapes and sizes , such as fishes, butterflies, and stars. They were made from bamboo, colored paper, and sometimes colored silks.

As for the mooncakes, what may seem to be just a treat for children actually has a deeper meaning. According to Thầy Hoàng, “Bánh trung thu are often round shaped, symbolizing the full harvest moon. People made mooncakes as food offerings to ancestral altars, and to give as gifts to parents to express filial piety. They were also coveted as presents for relatives and friends to enjoy during this festive celebration. After the moon has risen high into the sky, the children will light lanterns, dance, sing, and eat special fruit pastries in various animal shapes to celebrate.”

While you enjoy eating a mooncake during Tết Trung Thu this year, surrounded by your friends and loved ones, look up at the night sky to try and see if you can make out the dark patches on the moon’s surface. Maybe it is chú Cuội smiling down at you, waiting for your lantern to guide him back home.