When you look the full moon in the face, what do you see? Many see features of a man's face — the Man in the Moon — amid the dark and light patches created by the moon's topography. A wonderful word, pareidolia, describes the mental state of seeing a pattern where none really exists, such as the Man in the Moon — or for some, the rabbit in the moon.
In Chinese tradition, a goddess lives on the moon with her visible rabbit cohort. Chang'e was an ordinary mortal woman until she drank an elixir of immortality. Buoyed by her newfound powers, she flew up to the moon, and there she stayed. With a rabbit.
It's not Change'e but her rabbit buddy that the Chinese see in the moon's face instead of a man. Jade Rabbit works hard grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle to create more immortality elixir to sustain Change'e. A lunar rover launched by China in 2013 was named Yutu, Jade Rabbit, in its honor.
Interestingly, others see a rabbit up there, as well. In both a Buddhist tale from India and an Aztec folktale from Mexico, a rabbit was elevated to the moon as a reward for offering to sacrifice itself in the stew pot so that someone wouldn't go hungry.
Japanese and Korean cultures see a rabbit in the moon, and it too is using a mortar and pestle. This rabbit, however, is pounding out the ingredients for rice cake, a traditional food during autumn moon-viewing festivals. And in this way the rabbit in the moon hops into September.
The autumn moon-viewing festival of Japan, Tsukimi, celebrates what we often think of as the Harvest Moon, usually the full moon of September or early October. Since the Heian era over a thousand years ago, people have celebrated this moon and the season's harvest. They gather together in an optimal viewing spot to enjoy traditional foods and sake, recite classical poetry, and write their own poems inspired by the moon's beauty. (This all sounds like the kind of late night party a sky-watching poet like myself would really get into! Moon party, anyone?)
Foods associated with Tsukimi include rice cakes and dumplings, edamame, chestnuts, sweet potatoes, udon noodles with raw egg on top, and other seasonal foods. Moon-viewing cakes and other sweets featuring a rabbit motif are also very popular purchases in contemporary Japan. Apparently some Japanese fast food places even offer special fall menu items in honor of Tsukimi, similar to the green-dyed Shamrock Shakes offered by McDonald's to celebrate St. Patrick's Day each spring.
China and Korea also commemorate the same full moon (including rabbit) with similar autumn harvest/moon festivals. Indeed, throughout southeastern Asia, the fall full moon is well celebrated. In China, holiday activities for the Moon Festival include eating foods of the harvest, burning incense to honor Chang'e and other deities, lighting colorful lanterns, and performing dragon and lion dances. It's considered an auspicious time for matchmaking, as well. One of the signature traditions of the festival, especially in Hong Kong, is the making and sharing of mooncakes, little round, filled cakes that symbolize family unity.
the harvest moon —
rabbits go scampering
across Lake Suwa
—Buson, translated by Makoto Ueda
Here in Maine we celebrate the fall harvest with such events and activities as the Common Ground Country Fair, community harvest festivals, corn mazes, and pumpkin displays. But that association with the full moon, which we continue to call the Harvest Moon, is often missing. Perhaps we should be cultivating some new traditions to fete September's full moon. What better excuse do we need to gather with friends under the moonlit night sky, to share good food and perhaps a poem or two?
This month's full moon falls on September 16. Take some time that night to step out and really appreciate our shining satellite. What creature will you see on its round and golden face? With what foods will you celebrate?
Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.