Vietnam’s Mid-Autumn Festival

By September 22, 2010The WIN Column

Vietnam’s Mid-Autumn Festival: Lessons From The Moon To Win In Life

On September 22, the Vietnamese culture will celebrate 2010’s Mid-Autumn Festival, known as “Tết Trung Thu.” (Please don’t ask me to say that 3 times in a row.) One of the most important holidays in Vietnamese culture, Tết Trung Thu is a harvest festival dating back over 3000 years. It is also celebrated in China.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Lunar calendar. Sound complicated? I have the luxury of just asking my parents every year what the date is. In 2010, that’s September 22. For those of us on a Western calendar, the holiday usually falls in late September or early October. It coincides with the autumnal equinox, when the moon is at its fullest and roundest – often called the harvest moon. Moon lovers, this is the night to see the moon in its best lit glory and belt out your best rendition of “Moon River.”

Because of the moon’s significance for Tết Trung Thu, the holiday is celebrated with moon cakes. To this day, my father drives down to Little Saigon in Orange County to buy moon cakes and other celebratory foods. My parents send me home each year with a box of moon cakes – with my mother proudly announcing “Daddy buy moon cake for you.”

The Mid-Autumn Festival was born for farmers to celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season. However, in modern times, it has become more of a celebration for children. In Vietnamese folklore, parents worked so hard to prepare for the fall harvest, they had to leave their children alone to play. Parents then used Tết Trung Thu to show love and appreciation for their children. Now often known as the Children’s Festival, the day is filled with activities focused on kids. Children make (or are given) lanterns, which symbolize light and brightness, and carry them in processions. They wear masks and parade in the streets. Kids perform traditional Vietnamese dances. Parents tell fairy tales.

As a child, I did not fully grasp the meaning of Tết Trung Thu. (Perhaps that is because I escaped the “joys” of having to don a scary mark and perform a traditional Vietnamese dance about a unicorn, all while holding a red paper lantern with a candle lit inside.) All I knew is that my parents would drive the family down to Little Saigon to eat; we would buy moon cakes and some times the kids would receive little red envelopes with a dollar tucked inside.

As an adult, I appreciate far more the significance of this festival in my life. First, I recognize how my parents used Tết Trung Thu and other cultural holidays to keep alive their Vietnamese heritage for our family after we immigrated to the United States in 1975. As newcomers trying to raise their family in a foreign land, my parents saw familiarity in the holidays of their life in Vietnam. Seeing the meaning of these Vietnamese holidays helped me embrace my cultural background – a key part of what defines me. No matter where you come from, find joy in your own cultural and ethnic holidays. They help define what is unique and authentic about you.

Second, I cherish the Mid-Autumn Festival’s symbolism for the relationship between parents and children. Once my family came to the United States, my parents worked very hard under difficult circumstances – at first taking whatever odd jobs they could get. (Though unlike in ancient Vietnam, they were not preparing for the fall harvest; fall harvest was instead known as Mommy pushing little Jimmy around in a shopping cart at the local grocery store). But just like in Vietnamese folklore, my parents often had to leave my siblings and me to play by ourselves while they worked to support our family. I’ll never forget the first time my dad dropped my sister Patty and me often at a babysitter on his way to work; we cried our little eyes out. As a youngster, I often wished my parents could spend more time with me. But today, I am eternally grateful for the sacrifices they made to provide opportunity in the United States for their four children. My parents’ discipline made it possible for me to have my successful career. And I am now keenly cognizant that Tết Trung Thu is just one of many days on which my parents make up for lost time by expressing love and appreciation for their children.

Finally, there is a favorite folklore story told during the Mid-Autumn Festival which reminds me about one of life’s simplest, yet most undeniable, mantras. It’s a story about a carp who wanted to become a dragon. Yes, it’s about a carp. The carp worked very, very hard. It worked its little fins off – literally — because the little carp was able to eventually transform itself into a dragon. (This explains the mythical symbol Cá hóa Rông.) This story encourages children to work hard to become whatever they want to be.

That is one of the greatest life lessons my parents instilled in me – work hard, and you can become whatever you want to be. It is a message commonly delivered by immigrant parents to their children. But it should ring true for all of us, no matter where you were born and irrespective of whether you celebrate Tết Trung Thu.

Be the carp that turns into the dragon. Hold a lantern and reach for the moon. Work hard, become whomever (not just whatever) you are meant to be… and you will win in life.