Have you ever wondered why a person’s ‘Chinese age’ seems to be their real age plus one year? That’s because the Chinese have traditionally regarded the completion of the full 30 days as baby’s first birthday. So by the time the child reaches a year old, he or she would be two!
The rationale behind this is quite simple. Infant mortality rates were higher in the past, so when a newborn reached ‘满月’ (pronounced “man yue” and literally translated as ‘full moon’) in good health, this was a milestone worth celebrating. Widespread superstition also meant that families would be reluctant to announce their baby’s birth until he or she made it to the full month, in fear of jinxing the wee one.
As a result, the full moon celebration was a joyous occasion to officially ‘show off’ mother and baby to the world at large, and mark the beginning of the child’s life in the community. Symbolic rituals would also be carried out to ensure that the child would enjoy good health, happiness, and success in life. Some of these traditions have been passed down through the years and continue to be observed today.
Full Moon Traditions
Grooming for mum: The celebration of baby’s full moon also marks the end of the new mother’s confinement. This means she is finally allowed to take her first bath in water with pomelo leaves and have her hair washed. While few modern mothers today still observe the avoidance of water during confinement on account of hygiene, the morning bath on that day still carries much meaning.
The first haircut: One of the cutest traditions has to be giving baby her first haircut. Oftentimes, parents engage the services of a professional dedicated to this practice to come to the house in the morning to cut or shave baby’s hair. Afterward, this first crop of hair can be made into a Chinese calligraphy paint brush (called a ‘tai mao bi’) for a lifelong and very meaningful keepsake.
Baby’s first bath: After the haircut, the baby is given a bath in water with a stalk of pomelo leaves, some hard-boiled eggs, coins and flowers in it. This ritual is believed to wash away bad luck in a bid to ward off evil. The baby may have her nails trimmed.
Hard-boiled eggs: Hard-boiled eggs signify a new birth and renewal, coins bode well for riches and flowers denote the blossoming of a sweet and beautiful life ahead.
New clothes: Both mother and baby would then be dressed in new clothes, preferably in red, and be adorned in gold jewelry. Now they’re ready to meet the world!
Full Moon Rituals
In Buddhist or Taoist families incense is burnt and food offerings are made to ancestors on the morning of the full moon. This is to inform them of their new family member and to ask for blessings. Offerings are also presented to deities worshipped at home to appeal to them to protect the child.
Since the full moon celebration is the family’s chance to officially present the child to friends and relatives for the first time, many families choose to hold a party so that everyone has a chance to meet the new addition. This may be in the form of an informal luncheon at home, a party in a condominium function room or HDB void deck, or a more extravagant dinner at a hotel or restaurant.
This is also when the baby’s name is formally announced. For some parents, it is extremely important to choose an auspicious Chinese name. They believe that the customary name will determine their child’s character and destiny. Parents who have yet to select a Chinese name may ask the baby’s grandparents (the job traditionally falls upon the paternal grandfather) to do the honours.
Image cc licensed (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons Red eggs 2 by ProjectManhattan
Full Moon Blessings All Around
Relatives and friends are presented with a set of symbolic gifts (often varying according to the family’s dialect group). The basic must-haves include:
• Hard-boiled eggs symbolising fertility and the renewal of life that have been dyed red for good luck (in an even number to signify a baby boy and an odd number to denote a baby girl)
• Steamed glutinous rice dish (the taste and ingredients depending on dialect group)
• Pickled ginger because the Cantonese word for ‘sour’ sounds like the word for ‘grandson’, and it comes with the hope of many more to come
• Meat dish such as roast pork, chicken or braised pig’s trotters
• Traditional cakes or ‘kueh’ like ‘ang ku kueh’ (the ‘red turtle cake’ signifies longevity and previously its design indicated the sex of the child; the modern version typically uses a pointed shaped to represent a boy and a flat shape for a girl)
In recent years, some of the customs have been updated to reflect the culture. Today’s Singaporean parents may give out full moon party packs or gift boxes containing a selection of chocolates, cream puffs, cupcakes or even soft toys instead.
In return, friends and family give full moon presents to the child, gifts that traditionally carry auspicious significance. The older generation may present gold bangles, gold chains, or anklets, while the younger folk tend to choose more contemporary items like charm anklets or silver accessories, which may range from baby combs to spoons or even piggy banks.
The more practical-minded may choose to give hampers full of diapers and other baby care products, or useful items like an infant car seat. Of course, the ubiquitous hongbao – red packets containing money – works just as well in wishing baby a life of happiness and prosperity ahead.