The Gregorian calendar is the official civil calendar of most major countries in the world, including China. (Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia are two exceptions.)
The Gregorian calendar was created in 1582 by a slight modification to the Julian calendar in order to bring the date for the celebration of Christian Easter in line with the date chosen by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, meaning it aligns with the Earth’s rotation around the sun and the seasonal solstices and equinoxes that are its byproduct.
While introduced to China almost immediately after its creation by Jesuit missionaries it was not adopted as the official calendar here until 1912. Until that time China used the Chinese calendar, which, contrary to popular myth, is NOT a lunar calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons.
That said, Chinese culture, without a doubt, is lunar-centric. And, as a result, China is about to celebrate the second most important holiday of the year (after Spring Festival, of course), Zhongqiujie Festival, known in English as the Mid-Autumn Festival, or more simply, the Moon Festival. (The same festival is celebrated in Vietnam and on the same date but by a different name in Korea.)
The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and its roundest (i.e. in perfect balance). It is, without a doubt, my favorite Chinese holiday and has been celebrated in China since the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th to 10th century B.C.) This year it falls on September 8, 2014.
Part of the attraction is simply the time of year and the typically pleasant weather that accompanies the holiday. The summer humidity has broken and the skies are typically richly blue and smog-free.
In the West the lunar phase that gives rise to the holiday is known as the Harvest Moon, Mother Nature’s signal to bring the crops in. A time of reaping the bounties of the spring and summer, making it, by definition, a time of replenishment.
Not surprisingly, however, the Chinese take a more holistic view of replenishment and draw a much less definitive line between the worldly and the spiritual and the relative needs of the body in both regards. To them the moon, like water, is a symbol of rejuvenation – a broader, more holistic view of replenishment.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a gift-giving festival and logically the most common gifts involve food. Moon cakes, specifically, are the gift of choice. These are small, dense cakes sometimes filled with sweet paste but always embossed with characters of good luck and fortune. (They are, of course, always round in shape, denoting balance and equilibrium.)
The real attraction of the Mid-Autumn holiday to me, however, is not the celebration of material replenishment, but the concurrent celebration of the basic emotional replenishment and rejuvenation that can only come through connection with family and friends.
The theory is simple enough. There is only one moon. And everyone on the planet can see it. Only its position in the sky and the time of its ascent and setting differs – wherever you are in the world.
The most important custom of the day, therefore, is for families, who have gathered to consume the bounty of the new harvest over a special dinner, to retire outdoors to look up at the moon and remember friends and relatives who are doing the same thing elsewhere in the world. It is, if you will, a lunar mirror that allows family and friends to replenish their love and connection despite the separation of distance and time.
And how neat is that?
That custom, however, likewise symbolizes what I consider to be one of the most endearing aspects of Chinese culture – the notion that the universe is a vast ecosystem that exists not to support us or to nourish us or to provide us pleasure, but that we are very much a part of. Whether made of cheese or billion year-old star fragments, the moon is as much a part of life as is the water we drink and the air we breathe – and we part of them.
When you think of life in this way, it is easy to see how life becomes both more and less personal in nature. We are who we are but who we are likewise has a more shared quality to it.
It is not the moon; it is our moon. It is, in fact, us. And we are it. It cannot be owned. It cannot be harvested. In many ways, it cannot even be described, although many a poet and writer has tried.
It can, however, link us all together. It is a source of our connection – our shared identity – even our shared cycles of birth, rejuvenation, and mortality.
And in this time of ever increasing segmentation and fragmentation – regional, ethnic, religious – is not the moon the one thing we can share equally? No matter where you live on the planet, what ethnic group you are part of, or what religion you practice, is not the moon – the lone moon – the one thing that is both neutral and shared by all?
The same can be said of the sun, of course, but the sun is not unique to our world. And while the moon moves the tides it exerts a more benign power, a power more poetic than life enabling – or threatening.
The world is getting both smaller and more fragmented. Nations are dividing into ever-smaller states. Markets are fragmenting. Identities are both exploding in number and finding expression in ways both more and less personal.
Is this not a day when we can all, whatever our differences, look skyward and remind ourselves of the core things which still unite us all – e.g. the planet we share, the personal seasons we endure, the connections between us that ebb and flow like the tides.
It matters not what language we speak or what deity we worship. It matters not whom we consider our friends or our foes. It is the one thing that is common to us all and benign, neutral, and so vastly powerful all at the same time.
I would, therefore, like to offer a simple suggestion to all of the diverse people of the world. On this one day each year, when the neutral but powerful moon is at its fullest and most perfectly round, let us celebrate not our diversity, but our connection beneath the great lunar lantern in the sky. We can call it the Festival of Lunar Harmony.
To be clear, this would not be a lunar festival. This would be a festival of human connection. The moon is merely the reagent used to bring out the common thread of all humanity. It is quite literally all-inclusive. No one is excluded. We need only to look at the night sky in affirmation of our collective identity as global citizens of something greater than our race or ethnicity, our gender, our nationality, or even our passions.
Try it. And pass it on. It would be the ultimate yin-yang experience. In balance, harmony. In harmony, connection. In connection, peace. And in peace, fulfillment, and the sense of belonging that we all yearn for and the world now so desperately needs.
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Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.