Chrysanthemum Festival

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For the past couple days, this date–9 September–has been nagging at me. I knew it was supposed to be significant, but couldn’t remember why. Maybe it’s just because I know that in East Asian cultures, when the day and month are the same number, and especially when that number is odd, it’s a festival day. The 5th day of the 5th month is Boys’ Day/Dragon Boat Festival, the 7th day of the 7th Month is the Star Festival, and so on. But although I’ve visited Japan and Korea quite a bit, it has always been in summer, so I haven’t had the opportunity to experience most of the seasonal festivals, including this one; I have a sort of vague sense that they exist is all. But I had a strong urge to find out what 9/9 might be about.

Turns out today is the celebration of the Chrysanthemum Festival in Japan. The festival properly belongs to the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, but whereas in China lunar dates are still observed, in Japan they have been shifted to the Gregorian solar calendar. In China it is more commonly known as the Double Ninth Festival or Double Yang Festival. Odd numbers are associated with yang (and even numbers with yin), and as 9 is the highest single-digit yang number, yang energy is thought to be at a peak on this day. This year, the lunar date of the festival is 21 October–which is proper autumn, unlike today in Southern California where it is 103 degrees and most definitely still summer.

For wealthy Chinese, the festival seems to have grown increasingly aesthetically elaborate, with displays of assorted chrysanthemum cultivars, mountain- or hill-top picnics, drinking of crysanthemum wine with toasts to the celebrants’ longevity, and composing and reciting poems.

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However, I suspect the festival came to my attention, whether it was some long-buried subconscious memory surfacing or something more synchronicitous, because of its ancestor- and mortality-themed aspects. I don’t know if I’m becoming especially ancestor-oriented lately, or if my ancestors are clamoring for attention. I think, due to life circumstances which I will touch on in my next couple of posts, it’s a little of both. It is interesting that the chrysanthemum is associated with death in both Western and Eastern cultures; perhaps because, “Blooming late in autumn, the chrysanthemum signals the coming of winter, and death…” (Casal 1967: 102). I suppose it’s equally possible that Europeans simply imported the Asian symbolic associations of mums along with the flowers themselves.

Casal (op. cit.) speculates that in its original form, prior to being co-opted for rich people’s poetry parties, the chrysanthemum festival was a solar ritual focused on the mutual preservation of the sun’s and people’s vitality through the winter. I’m not sure I buy the solar hypothesis per se, but I do think that the complex symbolism of the chrysanthemum–mourning and melancholy, good health and longevity (it’s an important herbal medicine in Asia), protection and purification–make the most sense in the context of the contemplation of and encounter with our own mortality. And although I couldn’t find a single decently-cited internet source* (not even on Google Scholar) with much information on the Chrysanthemum or Double Ninth Festivals, I did find repeated references to it being a day to honor ancestors and the elderly. Note that there are other festivals and ceremonies in honor of the dead at other times of year, which might be why this aspect of the Chrysanthemum Festival has been downplayed over the years.

*This is why I didn’t bother putting in many links. If you’re interested, google Double Ninth and Chrysanthemum Festival and you will easily find the few crummy sources available. They mostly just repeat each other.

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