What is the Mid-Autumn (or “Moon Lantern”) Festival?

by Shrompy

With the Mid-Autumn Festival being so highly commercialized, it actually comes as a surprise to me to learn that it now has multiple and acceptable names, such as Moon Festival, Moon Lantern Festival, Lantern Festival, and Moon-cake Festival. Coming from a very traditional background, my parents and grandparents would scold me if I called it anything but Mid-Autumn Festival, because when I was young I only remembered the moon-cakes, so I used to call it Moon-cake Festival by mistake.

In my family, we used to pray to the Moon with joss sticks (incense), food (such as fruit and moon-cakes), and by burning offering paper. After this, the eldest aunt would cut and distribute moon-cake slices to everyone at the table. Eating moon-cake together symbolized family unity and harmony. Then the children would take a walk around the neighbourhood with lanterns.

The Festival seems to be most celebrated by people with Chinese origin who can be found in all parts of the world, including the USA, UK, Asia, East Asia, and South-East Asia. Depending on country, the day of festivities or the day after it could be a public holiday. Hence, different countries celebrate this Festival differently and emphasize different aspects of it. However, similar to the various New Year Festivities, this Festival is not limited to people of Chinese origin — everyone is invited to take part in it!

There are many legends and origins of the Festival itself, as well as for every activity or food in this Festival. The Festival originated as a Harvest Festival, which was celebrated during the full moon in autumn. It is debatable whether it was the Mountain gods or the Moon that was worshipped during that time to give thanks for the harvests. The transition to the emphasis of Moon worship can be attributed to various legends, one of which is when the Sui and Tang Emperors started holding formal celebrations for it. Commoners then followed the Emperors’ examples and held their own festivities. The moon itself is round in shape and symbolises reunion, one of the meanings of the Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated during the autumn equinox when the moon is at its brightest and roundest. There are many legends regarding the moon. The more famous ones are about the Jade Rabbit and Chang’e (pronounced Chang Er). The rabbit was begged by incognito immortals for food and, since it didn’t have any, it offered itself as food and sacrificed itself in the fire. The immortals were so moved that they sent the rabbit to the moon where it became an immortal Jade Rabbit who made medicine for those in heaven and also became Chang’e’s companion. Chang’e was the wife of Hou Yi, an archery hero who shot down nine of ten suns and saved the world from the extreme heat. Hou Yi attained an elixir of immortality (legends differ on whether it was his reward, or if he sought for it). Chang’e imbibed this elixir (again, legends differ on whether she took it out of jealousy, if she took it to prevent her husband from ruling tyrannically for eternity, or if she took it so that it would not fall into the hands of an evil person named Feng Meng) and fled to the moon (legends differ yet again on whether she was banished, or if she pitied the people and wanted to watch over them from the moon, or if she loved her husband so much that the moon was the only place close enough to Earth that she could be near to her mortal husband). Hou Yi (in the versions that he was still alive), upon seeing his wife on the Moon, prayed to the moon in grief and offered her favourite dishes; the commoners followed suit. In another version, the commoners prayed to the moon to commemorate Chang’e’s noble actions. A final legend of the moon was that lovers (or family) could look up and see the same moon even when separated from each other (in different areas, states, or countries), possibly originating from the Chang’e / Hou Yi love story, and hence it was like being able to see each other despite being apart (this particular moon symbolism is also a common theme in Asian entertainment such as drama, film, and anime).

It is not surprising then to see a beautiful lady, a rabbit, or a moon in the design of boxes which hold moon-cakes, or on the moon-cakes themselves. Moon-cakes are usually given to friends and family for well-wishing and expressing gratitude and can be eaten to symbolically convey family reunion. Moon-cakes have their own legends, and the most famous one is about how a Han uprising became successful when members passed messages hidden in or printed as designs on the moon-cakes that were distributed to every household. Moon-cakes are traditionally round in shape, so that it reflects the shape of the moon and also symbolises reunion, completeness, and unity. However, it is not uncommon to see moon-cakes in various shapes nowadays, such as ‘Hello Kitty’ shape, square shape, or pig shape. Apparently, there are even Angry Bird shapes and designs! The skin of the moon-cake can be made from various types of flour and by different methods to produce the traditional baked brown skin, or a ‘snow skin’ (bing1 pi2 冰皮, white skin, usually refrigerated), or a pastry skin (teo-chew or chao2 zhou1 潮州style, in many colours such as green, yellow, white, or purple, depending on flavour).

The flavours of the moon-cake are countless, starting from the traditional ones, such as lotus paste (steamed a white colour or fried a brown colour), red bean paste, nuts, and meats, to contemporary flavours such as green tea, durian, ice cream, chocolate, pandan, and taro. Sometimes, salted egg yolks are put whole into the paste — the roundness again reflects the roundness and symbolism of the moon. Moon-cakes are usually a dense, sweet, oily, and high calorie food item and may be an acquired taste. Personally, I prefer the vegetarian moon-cakes (no animal oil used) with steamed lotus paste (no oil either), which I accompany with cups of hot, traditional, Chinese tea. In SA, normal moon-cakes cost around $7-8 per normal sized cake, and $30-50 per box of four. It is, I must say, pretty expensive compared to the cheap normal moon-cakes that are available in other countries, or on the other end, cheaper than the extravagant ones that are also available.

Another feature of the Mid-Autumn Festival is lanterns. It is possible that lanterns reflect the brightness of the moon while another origin can be from guessing the riddles that are written on lanterns (cai1 deng1 mi2 猜灯谜). Lit lanterns can also be used to guide spirits or to contrast the brightness of the moon. Despite the uncertain origin of lanterns, it has become a mainstay of the Festival with many cultures and countries holding Lantern Parades. Traditionally, my family used to make lanterns out of a carefully peeled and hollowed pomelo (another traditional Festival food item – a fruit that is more sour than a mandarin and possibly 10 times the size of a mandarin) by putting a candle in the middle of the pomelo. Paper lanterns are also common. However, because of fire hazards, it may be more common to see electric battery-powered lanterns nowadays. Lanterns can come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from traditional cylindrical or cubic shapes, to specific characters like Superheroes or other cartoon characters.

With this information in mind, I hope you can understand the diverse meanings of the Festival!

How do you celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival?

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