In an English textbook used in China, a sentence reads like this:

We (Chinese) eat boat cakes at the Dragon Boat Festival.

FYI: the Dragon Boat Festival is a 1-day national holiday, which commemorates an ancient patriotic poet. In few southern areas in China, (official) festival activities, such as boat racing, are held on the day. However, eating the boat cake has spread across China even though the tradition has not been well observed because of the fast pace of life and the abundance of food choices.

In this case, which preposition should I use?


I will make my question really clear: in the following sentence, which preposition should I fill in the blank?

We (Chinese) eat boat cakes _____ the Dragon Boat Festival.

Please note:

  1. The preposition to be filled in, though a 1-word prepotion is preferred, can be a phrase, e.g.: "in front of", but such phrases as "on the day of..." are NOT what I am looking for.
  2. Again, there IS a set date for the 1-day festival in question, and there are almost NO activities held at home NOR events for anybody to go to, except that some Chinese eat the "boat cakes" (at home).
  3. Please feel free to believe or confirm that "the Dragon Boat Festival in itself is a problematic term or translation", and hence the sentence is invalid and does not yield an answer.
  • There is another option - you could eat boat cakes during the festival. If it is a traditional food that you might eat at home during the day of the festival (instead of going to the festival and buying cakes there), "during" might be a good choice. For example "Mooncake is the most popular and important food eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival." (source) – ColleenV Sep 26 '18 at 14:27
  • @ColleenV Thank you for your direction, but I'm sorry to say the link does NOT apply to my case. The Dragon Boat Festival is a set day and date without ambiguity, and the "during" solution does NOT really work with a 1-day national holiday. If you say ON and AT are both out (because DURING is idiomatic), I'm fine with that. My question is THIS: ON or AT. Any thoughts? – S.Z. Sep 26 '18 at 14:52
  • I know it doesn't answer your specific question - I put it there because it is related and might be of interest to other people who find this question. – ColleenV Sep 26 '18 at 14:56
  • 1
    It’s always on the 5th of lunar May. The date certainly changes from the perspective of solar calendar users. – S.Z. Sep 29 '18 at 15:35

In British English, the preposition at is used for the following festivities:

  1. at Christmas
    this holiday season includes Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and St. Stephen's Day which is on 26 December (also called Boxing Day).

  2. at Easter
    The Easter period includes Good Friday, Easter (which is always on a Sunday) and Easter Monday

  3. at New Year's
    this refers to the period around New Year's Day. Some people begin celebrating early on New Year's Eve (in Scotland this day is known as Hogmanay) and some don't stop partying until late into the New Year.

Note that the preposition on refers to a specific date or day, thus we may say

  • What are you doing on New Year’s Day? (January 1)
  • What are you doing at New Year’s? (December 31 – January 1)
  • What are you doing on Christmas Day? (December 25)
  • What are you doing at Christmas? (December 24 – 26)

In the case of the Chinese holiday, Dragon Boat Festival, whose date is fixed on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional Chinese calendar, this means it changes every year. According to Wikipedia, in 2017 the festival occurred on 30th May, but in 2018 it fell on 18th June.

The date of Easter, on the Christian calendar, also changes every year. It occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21. For example in 2017, Easter was on 16 April but this year it was on 1 April. Next year it will be on 21 April.

Therefore, in my experience, British English speakers will normally say

  • What are you doing at Easter?
  • What are you doing on Easter Sunday?

The same “rules” could be applied to the Chinese festival

  • What are you doing at the Dragon Boat Festival? (around this period)
  • What are you doing on (the) Dragon Boat Festival?

Online, I found examples using both prepositions


  1. Visiting China at the Dragon Boat Festival…
  2. The wine is drunk at the Dragon Boat Festival…
  3. Make a splash at the Dragon Boat Festival
  4. ABAX look forward to seeing the local people and businesses of Peterborough at the Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday 10th June 2017
  5. What food do they eat at the Dragon Boat Festival?
  6. It is a very popular practice to drink this kind of Chinese liquor seasoned with realgar at the Dragon Boat Festival
  7. Casualties at the Dragon Boat Festival were common in China in the past as opponents could throw stones and sticks at participants.
  8. Dragon Boat team members gather under the tent as they get ready to race at the Dragon Boat Festival Saturday morning, July 28, 2018 at...
  9. Today, people still eat zongzi and participate in dragon boat races to commemorate Qu Yuan’s sacrifice at the Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu festival) on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

on (with and without the article the)

  1. What activities do Chinese children do on Dragon Boat Festival?
  2. Believe it or not, legend has it that at midday on Dragon Boat Festival day, you can balance an egg on its end.
  3. What do people do on Dragon Boat Festival in different regions of China?
  4. On Dragon Boat Festival, parents also need to dress their children up with a perfume pouch.
  5. What do Chinese People Eat on the Dragon Boat Festival?
  6. Zongzi or rice dumplings, is a traditional Chinese food always eaten on the Dragon Boat Festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
  7. These [“Jung”, 五月粽 or Zong Zi] are often eaten at breakfast on the festival day which, as a day of rest, tends to start late so rice dumplings for brunch are quite common.
  8. The custom of eating mianshanzi on the Dragon Boat Festival mainly prevails in Minqin County in Northwest China's Gansu Province.
  9. Some areas will boil tea eggs and brine eggs to eat on the Dragon Boat Festival.
  10. On the Dragon Boat Festival, children normally wear scented sachets to ward off evil. A scented sachet is an ornament worn on the front of the dress.
  • Thank you for your input, truly! What I’m going to say bears no intention of fault finding nor ungratefulness, but to discriminate the actual uses and give our discussion to a brighter prospect. I totally agree with your analysis on AT vs ON in general. As for your 9 examples of AT, to me, they're of 3 categories: unclear TIME or EVENT indication (example 1; 2 ), (more-)TIME-related uses (example 4; 5; 6; 9, which should be inappropriate preposition uses based on the definition of ON and AT), and (more-)EVENT-related uses (example 3; 7; 8). – S.Z. Sep 30 '18 at 2:52
  • Among the examples of ON, sentence 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 admittedly reflect the nature of the festival (1-day-long; with few public events available) and advocate the use of ON. Sentence 2 and 7, though seemingly support the use of ON, but they should be excluded as supporting evidence because there is no disagreement on the use of ON in front of “… DAY” structure. – S.Z. Sep 30 '18 at 2:52
  • Please approve my edition of your answer (to get the examples numbered) if it's up to you. – S.Z. Sep 30 '18 at 2:56
  • @S.Z. ON: 2 and 7 remain, they specifically refer to the festival, 7. just omits the words "dragon boat". As for the example with AT yes, there is ambiguity between time (on a date) and event (at a feast), so it is open to interpretation. – Mari-Lou A Sep 30 '18 at 6:11
  • Can I assume you are on board with me about ON but not AT? – S.Z. Sep 30 '18 at 6:15

Both uses of preposition are correct in your question. (If I'm interpreting your question correctly.)

I eat boat cakes at the Dragon Boat Festival.
I eat boat cakes on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival.

In one sentence, the pronoun is followed by the festival itself. In the other sentence, the pronoun is followed by a time (the day).

To be more precise, it's the word used that determines the pronoun:

I eat at the festival.
I eat on the day.

So, even though something may be the same thing, if different words are used, then a different preposition is used:

I eat boat cakes at the Dragon Boat Festival.
I eat boat cakes on Dragon Boat Day.

(Assuming it had Day in its name.)

But if you aren't going to a local festival, then:

I eat boat cakes on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival.


I baked a cake on Christmas Day.
I ate some cake at the Christmas party.

But also:

I took a cake to the Christmas party.
I baked a cake for Christmas.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ColleenV Sep 26 '18 at 16:53
  • @Jason Bassford please feel free to edit your answer now that I have made my question crystal clear. Thank you! – S.Z. Sep 28 '18 at 5:41

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