03 October 2017 by Roy Preece
Our moon is especially beautiful at this time of year. Mostly we don’t much notice the rising and setting of the moon, but astronomical events do tend to force it on our attention in September-October.
Chinese love an excuse for families to get together, as we have noted before, and eat special food and have fun. They have many festival days, often based on the traditional farming calendar.
Moon Festival, also known as Mid-Autumn Festival, is the time of the second rice harvest in Taiwan and the beginning of the colder weather. It is observed in different ways across China, but everyone likes to eat the special Moon Cakes made to a traditional recipe.
In Britain the especially large and beautiful moon is known as the Harvest Moon. It is not celebrated in any way these days, but it does occur at the traditional period of harvest and harvest festivals in churches. The several nights of bright moonlight were valuable for getting in the harvest when this urgent work might go on all night. This harvesting by moonlight was a favourite subject among the atmospheric paintings of Samuel Palmer.
In Taiwan, when the children are gathered together, a grown up may read the story of Jade Rabbit, or the Moon Rabbit. In this tale, the rabbit makes a very kind and unselfish gesture to a hungry old man who is really a god in disguise. As a reward, Jade Rabbit is found worthy to fly to the moon where she lives with the beautiful Moon Lady in the Moon Palace. The Moon Lady teaches Jade Rabbit how to make magic healing medicines, and when Rabbit returns to Earth she spends her time caring for sick people. It is Jade Rabbit’s unselfish character which leads her to do this, but her healing powers have come from outside herself – from the moon.
Children draw faces on large round yellow fruits, called pomelo or Chinese grapefruit. Then they cut them open and eat the contents and finally they wear the open skins on their heads. Maybe the pomelos are symbolic of the moon and parents hope some of the Moon Lady’s magic will be good for the children’s health. If possible, the family will go outside and together enjoy the beauty of the moon for a while.
Why is the moon so prominent just now? The moon rises at various times throughout the year and varies in shape, but at this time of year, as the sun sets earlier and earlier, the full moon rises around the time of sunset or twilight and is more likely to be noticed. It then shines all night and sets at sunrise; hence its value to the harvesters.
As the moon rises it also looks particularly large and splendid. Scientists tell us this is an illusion because of the way our brains interpret size at different heights, but it is nevertheless an impressive experience. I was walking on the Lymington Marshes one evening when quite by chance I noticed the tip of the moon appearing above the low horizon. I watched entranced as the whole moon slowly came into view. The day was still quite light so the moon was not yellow and shining as at night, but pale and grey, with its friendly face, as we see it in the daytime. I have tried to relive this experience, but it is not easy, requiring a particular combination of times of sunset, moonrise and good weather. However, it’s not too difficult to see the moon rise, large and golden, after dark, casting a golden path across the sea. The illusion of size lasts only thirty minutes or so, so timing is essential.
Mid-Autumn Festival for Chinese this year is from the 1st to the 8th of October with several nights of nearly full moons, but the key date for celebrating the Moon Festival is 4th October when the moon is at its fullest. In the south of England sunset is at 18.32 BST, when twilight begins, but the sky will still be light at first. Moon rise is at 18.50 BST, so the timing is very good. In Yilan County in north Taiwan sunset is 1737 CST and moonrise is 1730 CST. This wonderful link will give you times anywhere in the world.
We wish you happiness and good luck at Moon Festival and hope you may see a beautiful moon and a memory to treasure.