Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!
Mid-Autumn Festival or 中秋節 is a holiday celebrated throughout many parts of East Asia. You might have also heard it being called Moon Cake Day, the Moon Festival or the Mooncake Festival.
It’s a massive holiday in China- many consider it the second most important festival after the Chinese New Year. For a country where many families live far apart, is one of the holidays where many people will travel back home to see their family. It’s celebrated a little differently by different cultures and areas (for example, in Korea there is Chuseok (autumn eve) and in Japan they have Tsukimi (moon-viewing)), but some common ways to celebrate involve gathering for a large feast (similar to American Thanksgiving), lighting paper lanterns, and of course, eating a delicious sweet pastry called mooncake while admiring the beautiful full moon.
It’s especially fun for children, so we have many fond memories celebrating it in our childhood, and we thought it would be fun to share a little more about this holiday and how to celebrate it.
What Day is Mid-Autumn Festival in 2020?
As the name tells us, the holiday takes place in Autumn and is timed to coincide with the Full Moon. It traditionally falls on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, which is in September or early October in the Gregorian calendar. This year, Mid-Autumn Festival falls on October 1st (Thursday).
What do you Celebrate During Mid-Autumn Festival?
In the past, the Moon Festival was meant as a celebration of harvest. Ancient Chinese emperors worshipped the moon to thank it for the plentiful harvest and many used it as a time to celebrate their hard work and harvest. Today, the holiday primarily is used as a time to reunite with family and spend some quality time over food.
What are Moon Cakes?
As children we always loved looking at the decorated metal tins filled with moon cakes. There are many different brands, flavors, and intricate designs you can buy. Mooncake boxes were often piled up high at the Chinese supermarkets right before the holiday. If you’re in China, you’ll see ads of all sorts of different brands.
It’s customary to buy and gift these boxes to loved ones, so you can imagine that people want to find the best tasting and beautiful mooncakes, but it can be a bit of a burden to gift and receive so many-- what will you do with five tins of mooncake!?
They're typically round pastries with a thin, tender pastry dough on the outside plus a sweet, dense inside. The filling can be red bean paste, lotus seed paste, nuts, and sometimes accompanied with a salted egg yolk or two. They're super dense and rich so you'd normally cut them into small wedges and pair it with tea.
These days there's many different innovative flavors and even different outer shells- for example "snow skin" mooncakes which have a glutinous rice exterior (similar to mochi), and you can find interiors which are fruit flavors like pineapple and durian, taro paste, ice cream, and more. There’s even more health-conscious versions now, which is a huge contrast to the traditional, dense, non-vegan cakes.
What do the Decorations on Mooncake Mean?
Mooncakes can range from very simple to quite ornate. The designs, which are imprinted onto the cake’s dough can contain Chinese characters for auspicious words, the name of the bakery, as well as the filling inside. There can also be designs of the moon, flowers, Lady Chang’e (嫦娥) (Lady of the Moon or Goddess of the Moon), or a rabbit.
Origin of the Moon Festival (and why a Lady and Rabbit lives on the Moon)
While in the western world we have the man on the moon, Asian folklore tells of the story of a lady and rabbit on the moon.
Like many old tales, there are many different versions, but it often starts by telling how long, long ago there were ten suns in the sky. The ten suns were scorching the earth and life was very difficult for humans who had no nights and couldn’t farm crops. Fed up, a famous archer named Hou Yi (后羿) shot down nine of the ten suns, leaving just one Sun. As a reward for his feat, the goddess Xiwangmu (西王母) gave him the elixir of immortality.
Hou Yi was conflicted on taking the elixir as he only had one, and did not have to gain immortality without his beloved and beautiful wife, Chang'e.
One day while Hou Yi was away hunting, his apprentice Fengmeng (逢蒙) broke into the house and tried to take the elixir. Trying to prevent him from taking it, Chang'e drank it. In some versions she simply found his hidden elixir and took it for herself.
Either way, she took the elixir of immortality and she began to float up towards the heavens and landed on the Moon. Her husband who found out what happened was so sad he displayed fruits and cakes that Chang'e liked as sacrifices for her. In the versions were Chang'e stole the elixir, Hou Yi was angry but later began to miss her while looking at the moon. He felt she must be lonely and started offering the treats.
That’s the origin story of why people celebrate with moon cakes!
And the rabbit? Well in some versions the rabbit is her companion who helps her pound herbs for medicine or more elixir of immortality with its feet. In Japanese and Korean versions it is pounding ingredients for mochi or rice cakes. Can you spot the rabbit with its mortar?
I hope you enjoyed reading a little about the Mid-Autumn Festival. Hope you are safe and well with loved ones. Enjoy something sweet with a warm drink tonight- look at the full moon and appreciate its beauty!
Karin is the co-founder of Arden Cove and co-creator of the Anti-Theft Waterproof Crossbodies - bags created for women who want all the practicality and safety features without compromising in style. Shop ArdenCove.com.