Everything you need to know about the Mooncake Festival, including foods, traditions, and folktales
For many of us, fall means apple spice candles and pumpkin spice lattes. In China and throughout Asia, this time of year signals bright lanterns and stuffed mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s sometimes referred to as the Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival because these pastries are so prevalent during this holiday.
Mid-Autumn Festival is one of China’s biggest celebrations, along with Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) and the Dragon Boat Festival. It falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar (in September or October) when the moon is believed to be the fullest and brightest.
Learn the history
The Mid-Autumn Festival is an ancient Chinese tradition that dates back to the Shang Dynasty, around three thousand years ago. Its origin was in part celebration of the end of the harvest when all the crops have been collected and stored for the winter. Ancient people worshiped the full moon at this time of the month by burning incense and making offerings. Following dynasties have built on these traditions, which now include family reunions, lighting lanterns, and fire dragon dances.
Like many Chinese holidays, the Mid-Autumn festival comes steeped in legends and myths.
The most famous origin story is of Hou Yi and Chang E. There are many variations of the story, but this is the version I was told: long ago, the world had 10 suns. Hou Yi was an expert archer, and he used his arrows and his strength to shoot down nine of them. To thank him for saving the people and Earth, the Western Queen Mother (a Chinese goddess) gave him an elixir for immortality. Rather than take it for himself, Hou Yi gave the bottle to his wife, the beautiful Chang E.
Feng Meng, a greedy man who wanted immortality for himself, threatened Chang E one night when Hou Yi was away. Rather than give up the potion, Chang E drank the contents, and when she jumped out of the window to escape, she floated up to the moon. When Hou Yi came back and found her gone, he was devastated but thought he could see his wife in the moon. To commemorate her, he began to worship the moon by burning incense and leaving offerings.
Tell the stories
My favorite story as a child was about the Jade Rabbit which is another common folktale told during the holiday. Once, three immortal beings disguised themselves as beggars and went walking through the forest. They came across a monkey, a fox and a rabbit. When they asked for food, the monkey and fox quickly offered what they had, but the rabbit was unable to share anything. Instead, the rabbit jumped into the cooking pot so that the “beggars” could eat her. The immortals, touched by her sacrifice, sent the rabbit to the moon to live forever, and you can still see her shadow during the full moon.
Another famous legend claims that mooncakes ignited the revolution that brought down the Mongol rule in China in the 14th century. Rebels hid scrolls with the date of the attack within mooncakes. The hidden message circulated throughout the villages undetected by the Mongol rulers. On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the rebels successfully overthrew the Mongols and started the Ming Dynasty.
Celebrate the traditions
In China, moon worship is not as common as in the past. However, some families may leave seasonal fruits offerings like pomegranate, watermelons or grapes on a table outside. People often spend the evening outside, especially near the water where they can see the reflection of the full moon.
Mandy, Alo7’s Recruitment Manager, says that her family spends time together preparing a large dinner and eating mooncakes. Harvest foods such as crabs, pumpkin, beans, and duck are often served. Giving gifts to co-workers and family members is also an established tradition. At the Alo7 head office, everyone gets mooncakes from the boss as well as days off to visit family or go on a vacation. This year, the mooncakes had shapes of Alo7 characters Ola, Laki, Pili, Nani, and Lele.
Colorful lanterns are sold and line the streets at this time of year, and it’s a fun activity for children to decorate them. Others may attach riddles to them. Can you guess the answer to these three riddles?
- What is faster, hot or cold?
- What building has the most stories?
- What does everyone do at the same time?
Taste the foods
Now you can understand why it’s known as the Mooncake Festival–these pastries are ubiquitous during the holiday. Mooncakes are a special kind of pastry with a thin crust, sweet or savory fillings and a decorative pattern on top. The filling can vary from region to region; Mandy says where she lives in the south, they are usually coconut and red beans. Snow skin mooncakes, which first became popular in Hong Kong, are refrigerated rather than baked and have a white crust. Other fillings might be salted egg yolk, lotus seed paste or even ice cream.
Actually, many of my Chinese friends, including myself, don’t like mooncakes! They’re quite filling and heavy, even if you share one with your family. They are like the Asian equivalent of the holiday fruitcake. Mooncakes are rather intensive to make and require some specialized ingredients, so most people prefer to buy them from stores. Nevertheless, the festival wouldn’t be the same without at least one of these dense treats.
Now that you know the basics, why don’t you join the celebrations? Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by Asian communities around the world. See if your local community is hosting an event and enjoy the full moon with lanterns, exhibitions and yes, mooncakes.
I started teaching English abroad after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a degree in English Literature. Although I originally planned to teach in Cambodia for a year, I discovered I had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional and personal goals through language learning. I’ve been an Alo7 tutor since April 2017 and am currently living in South America.
I am Chinese-Japanese American, but sadly, I’m not trilingual. I grew up in a relatively “Western” household–no Tiger Moms but plenty of fried rice and a healthy dose of Asian guilt. My favorite part of English teaching is getting the opportunity to learn about my students’ daily lives, traditions and customs, so I’m very excited to be writing about Chinese culture on the Alo7 blog!