“Tết Trung thu” – an element contains traditional intangible cultural values

The worshiping tray with an identity of agricultural residents © Hoang The Phuc

When the festive activities of Lunar July ends, it is the beginning of “Tết Trung thu” (or “the Mid-Autumn festival”). It usually falls out on the 15th day of Lunar August when the weather turns a little cooler after the unpleasantly hot summer. In Vietnam, this event has many humanistic meanings such as: regarding as “family union holiday”, thanksgiving to the nature Gods for the harvest and growth of life, praying to ask the blessings for families and relatives. As time went by, it is known as the Children’s festival because of its pureness and closeness to the natural world. Moreover, watching the moon’s color on that day can predict the harvest as well as the national destiny: namely, the successful silk-making season (golden moon), natural disasters (blue moon), peaceful country (orange moon).

Although the origin of “Tết Trung thu” is not really clear, Vietnamese people still practice it as an intangible cultural heritage (ICH) belonging to ancient wet-rice civilization. There have been several folktales about it: the story of Hằng Nga (Moon Lady), the legend about the woodcutter named Cuội, the tale of the king went to visit the moon, ect. And the oral tradition of Cuội was the most popular story and it reflects the Vietnamese folk identity. It is said that Cuội’s absent-minded wife poured dirty water on a magic tree which caused it to fly towards the moon. He failed to pull the tree back and stuck with it on the moon. Therefore, children often carry colorful lanterns on the full moon night of Lunar August to help him find the way back to Earth.

Vietnamese people spend whole a month preparing for the celebration. Some outstanding customs indispensable on the brightest moon night include:

– Worshiping the natural Gods: This practice demonstrates knowledge concerning nature and the universe of indigenous people. The mid-autumn day is the occasion to show their respect to the natural Gods and ancestors. Besides, the worshiping tray with five kind of fruits (representing the universe’s five elements), moon-cakes with many unique shapes including two main types: “bánh dẻo” (symbol of reunion) and “bánh nướng” (meaning of life’s taste), toys which expressed the desire for a good harvest year, a happy and reunited family.

– Enjoying traditional mid-autumn specialities: After the full moon rises, when the Gods and ancestors have received the devotion of living people, it will be time for everyone to enjoy the fruits and cakes together. It can be said that gathering in the moonlight is a traditional practice and also a rare time of year for everybody to gather and show the connection between family members.

– Carrying lanterns: For Vietnamese children, the traditional lantern is the most meaningful gift to parade in the Mid-Autumn festival. The making lantern is considered as one of the famous traditional craftsmanship of agricultural residents as well. Traditional lanterns are made from bamboo and cellophane, going through many stages. There are many lantern shapes designed with folk symbolic meanings: the star lantern shows the purity of children, the rabbit lantern represents the moon, the toad lantern describes a desire about favorable weather for crops, the carp lantern stand for wishing peace and prosperity, ect.

– Performing the unicorn dance: This performance art originated from the folk legend about the unicorn. Legendarily, unicorn was very aggressive and often caused trouble for human. Then “ông Địa” (the character incarnated by Maitreya Buddha) appeared and tamed it into a sacred animal to bless everyone in annual Mid-Autumn festival. Hence, the simulation of “ông Địa” hanging out with his unicorn among the children’s lantern lights is an unforgettable image in this festival.

In general, “Tết Trung thu” in Vietnam retains positive traditional elements in the modern time. It still has attracted the younger generation and directed them to the values of truth – goodness – beauty which are inherent to the festival. As an element that covers most of the specific domains of ICH, Vietnam’s Mid-Autumn festival has its own identity despite the great impact of globalization in its culture and the recent transformation of customs.