Around the world on September 13th, Asian communities and families will be celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, a yearly celebration based on Chinese history, myth, and customs. It’s widely considered as the second most important holiday for Chinese culture, so many people take part in the festivities with their loved ones. Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Mid-Autumn Festival and when does the Mid-Autumn Festival take place?
The Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the Lunar Festival, the Moon Festival, and the Harvest Moon Festival. It happens on the 15th of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which means the festival is usually in September or October. Although it falls on a particular day, many people in China make the occasion into a three-day holiday.
The origins of the festival goes back 3,000 years to the Zhou Dynasty. Ancient Chinese emperors revered the moon, believing that by praying to the moon and making food offerings to it would bring good harvest. The old way of thinking was that on this specific day, the moon would be at the brightest and fullest although this is not always the case astronomically. In addition, the festival traditionally coincided to when crops were to be harvested. As time when on, celebration of the moon spread to the overall populace and eventually families and communities gathered to worship the moon together.
There are also Chinese legends associated with this popular holiday; the most popular myth is the story of Chang’e. Chang’e was the wife of Hou Yi, an archer who saved the world. The legend goes that the couple lived in a time when there were ten suns in the sky that burned the surface of the Earth. One day, Hou Yi had enough of the suffering and he used his expert archery skills to shoot down nine of the suns, saving life on the planet as well as earning respect and many archery students. For his heroism, the immortal Queen Mother of the West Xi Wangmu awarded Hou Yi an elixir that would grant him immortality. However, Hou Yi had no desire to be immortal because it would mean that his wife Chang’e would be left behind. Instead, he gave the elixir to his wife for safekeeping.
Unfortunately, one of Hou Yi’s students was greedy and wanted the immortality potion. So while Hou Yi was away from his home, the student broke in and cornered Chang’e to steal the elixir. Chang’e knew she would be easily overpowered by the greedy student and did not want him to have immortality. In a desperate and selfless act to thwart his plan, she drank the elixir.
Immediately, the elixir caused her to float up to the moon where she would spend the rest of her life. Hou Yi returned and learned of what had transpired, causing him to set aside offerings for his wife to remember her. And when their tragic story became more well-known, others began to give offerings to Chang’e, the moon goddess, to commemorate her on the day the full moon was the brightest.
What happens during the Mid-Autumn Festival?
Many Chinese people treat this festival as an opportunity for a yearly family reunions. For the American readers, this can be equated to Thanksgiving! Although, because of the bittersweet tale of Chang’e and Hou Yi, the Mid-Autumn Festival can also be a romantic occasion.
Families will gather together for a big feast, often with foods that are auspicious or special to the end of summer/autumn season. These foods include duck, pumpkin, river snails, taro, hairy crab, pomelo, pomegranate, and osmanthus wine. Some of these foods are more popular in certain areas of China, but all of these foods are consumed for symbolic reasons, like well wishes for a happy life. Even the act of an entire family eating together is a symbol because it epitomizes the value of solidarity and togetherness.
However, the most popular food of the Mid-Autumn Festival is the moon cake. The moon cake is named in honor of Chang’e who is the moon goddess. A moon cake is a palm-size dessert with glossy, pastry cover and a sweet, dense filling. There is usually a floral or ornate design on its top and its round shape is meant to represent solidarity and union. The moon cake is quite a substantial dessert that is typically shared by dividing it up into wedges or slices. There are many different types of fillings, depending on the regional cuisine. The traditional fillings are lotus seed paste, red bean paste, nuts, and fruits. There are also savory variations of moon cake that include pork and seafood! In modern times, you can find moon cakes that are green tea flavored or chocolate. Yet, the most well-known version of the moon cake is one with a lotus seed paste filling with a salty hard-boiled egg yolk in the middle. The egg yolk, which is meant to look like a full moon, adds complexity to the dessert, bringing together both sweet and salty notes.
Besides eating a wonderful meal together, Chinese families also like creating and lighting paper lanterns. Children especially love decorating lanterns then hang them up in trees or light them up so that they float up into the sky. Lanterns can be many different shapes. Most are round, again to represent the moon, or cylindrical. More complex lanterns can look like Chang’e or rabbits, an animal that is also associated with the moon in another Chinese myth.
Once the feasts are had and the lanterns are decorated, families and friends will end their festival celebrations by eating moon cakes together and moon-gazing. So make sure to ask your students about how they celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival! What are their favorite moon cake fillings?