On Friday, September 13th, China will be celebrating one of the important festivals of the year, the Mid-Autumn Festival. Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month each year and goes by a few other names as well. In Chinese, the festival is known as 中秋节 (zhong qiu jie), which translates into Middle Autumn Festival, but many, especially foreigners, know it as the mooncake festival named after the moon cakes that the locals eat this time of year. The Mid-Autumn Festival is a cultural and religious holiday signifying the end of the autumn harvest. It is among the most recognized Chinese festivals along with the Dragon Boat Festival, Chinese Valentine’s Day and the Chinese Spring Festival.
The moon has always been carefully observed in China, and many important decisions are tied to the moon and its movements in the sky. All major holidays in China are planned according to the lunar calendar, except for the National Holiday which falls on October 1st each year. Not only holidays are scheduled this way though, as wedding dates are also often set, based on the lunar calendar, and many Chinese locals still celebrate their birthday according to the lunar calendar as well.
The moon is thought to have a close relationship with how and when the seasons change and was therefore very important to farmers. To express their gratitude, they would give thanks to the moon by providing offerings as far back as the Zhou Dynasty between 1046 and 256 BC.
In old times, a more romantic story has surfaced and gained traction, which is the story of Chang’E. A long time ago, ten suns had risen in the sky, and were causing hardships on the peasants below. But a skillful archer, known only as Yi, was able to shoot down nine of the suns, and as a reward, he was given an elixir of immortality. But Yi, however, did not consume the potion, choosing instead of to save it, as he didn’t want to become immortal without his wife, Chang’E.
But one day, when Yi was out hunting, a thief by the name of Fengmeng, broke into their house to steal the elixir, threatening Chang’E to give it up. To keep the elixir safe, she drank it herself, and immediately flew towards the heavens, landing on the moon and settling there forever. Yi heard of what had happened and was inconsolable. He found the fruits and cakes that his wife loved, and presented them to the moon, to her, as gifts and as a sign of his undying love. It is possible that moon offerings became popular because of this story.
One of the most popular customs around the Mid-Autumn festival is eating moon cakes. Moon cakes come in many shapes and sizes, with different kinds of fillings such as nuts, fruit, bean paste, coffee, chocolate, and even flowers. Many of the cakes are round, symbolizing the family reunion that often happens during this festival. Eating round moon cakes, under a round moon makes the locals long for their family and friends. Moon cakes are also often given as gifts during the holiday, as families reunite.