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Mid-Autumn Festival: dates, traditions and legends

9 min read

During this enchanting celebration, families gather under the moonlit sky to relish delightful treats, share laughter, and celebrate unity and abundance.
But what is Mid-Autumn really about? How did it all begin? And why do we even celebrate it?
Well, we’re here to let you in on everything from the festival’s time-honoured traditions to its history and legends.

Mid-Autumn Festival, also know as Chinese Moon Festival and Mooncake Festival is celebrated on 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar with a full moon at night.
In the Gregorian calendar, it falls somewhere between the middle of September and the beginning of October.
A celebration of the harvest that is an important part of the culture, on par with Chinese New Year, it offers opportunities for families and friends to get together and enjoy one another’s company while they show appreciation for the moon and the harvest that comes in the autumn of each year.

This annual celebration has roots that can be traced back from 2000 to 3000 years.
Some historians believe that the first festival was celebrated sometime during the Zhou dynasty (1025-221 BC) when emperors would pray to the gods for good weather and a profitable harvest as well as peace for their country.
But, the festival only became an official celebration in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) when ancient emperors of China would host a feast to make offerings to deities and the moon in celebration of the year’s harvest.
After the Tang Dynasty, the festival also became a time of the year for the emperor to reward his officials for their hard work and contributions. Over time, it evolved into a festival of many traditions, including to give thanks to the moon, pray for better luck, fortune and fertility, and reunite with the family to celebrate and admire the moon in its full glory.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is associated with different myths and legends centering around Chang-E, the Moon Goddess, and her husband, Hou Yi, an excellent archer.
Probably the most popular version of the story includes the idea that Hou Yi lived on the sun but he could visit his wife only during the full moon, on the 15th day of every month.
Long, long ago, there were 10 suns in the sky that burnt all the plants on Earth and people were dying. One day, the hero Hou Yi used his bow and arrows to shoot down nine of them, and all the people on Earth were saved.
The Queen Mother of the West gave Hou Yi a bottle of elixir that could make him immortal.
Although he did want to become immortal, he wanted to stay with Chang’e and therefore, he didn’t drink the elixir and asked her beloved to keep it safe for him.
Hou Yi became more and more famous after he shot down the nine suns. People wanted him to be their master, including Pang Meng, who actually wanted to seize his elixir.
One day, after making sure Hou Yi had gone, he went to his house and tried to force Chang’e to give him the elixir.
In a moment of desperation, Chang E swallowed the elixir, that made her fly higher and higher and, in the end, she stopped on the moon and became immortal.
Hou Yi was heartbroken when he was told what had happened to Chang’e and, when he shouted to the sky, surprisingly discovered the moon was extremely bright that night.
He missed Chang’e a lot, so on the day of the full moon he placed on tables foods that she liked.
Since then, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, people have offered fruits and mooncakes to worship the moon.

Also the jade rabbit is also a widespread character related to the Mid-Autumn Festival and the moon. The Chinese believe that the he is a companion to Chang’e on the moon.
The Mid-Autumn Festival rabbit story goes about that three immortals reincarnated themselves into three poor old people and begged food from a fox, a monkey and a rabbit (or maybe he was the Emperor of Heaven himself who wanted to test the animals’ virtues and came to Earth changing his appearance to that of an old man).
In any case, the fox and monkey both gave food to the immortals. However, the rabbit did not have any food. It then said to the immortals: “you can eat me” and jumped into the fire. The immortals were so moved by the rabbit and sent it to the moon to become an immortal jade rabbit. Ever since then, the Chinese jade rabbit stays in the Moon Palace to accompany Chang’e and compounds immortal medicine for those living in the heaven.

But there is also something else.
When you look at the moon on a clear night, you can see there is a shadow on it. Although it has been proven that the shadow is actually mountains that were generated by a meteor, a Chinese legend says that is the shadow of a huge tree on the moon.
As story goes Wu Gang, a man from Xihe of Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), was an ordinary person who wanted to become immortal but didn’t work very hard, and he never tried his best.
The Emperor of Heaven got angry with him because of his attitude and, in order to punish him, he planted a huge cherry bay tree (or a laurel tree, depending the version of the story you hear), which was 1,665 meters high, on the moon. He ordered Wu Gang to cut it down and, in case, he could become immortal.
This time, Wu Gang was very serious and worked hard on chopping down the tree.
But you know what? He could never finish his work because the cherry bay was healed every time that Wu Gang chopped it.
But he wouldn’t give up. He tried time and time again, and is still trying now. On clear nights, people can see an obvious shadow on the moon, made by the huge cherry tree.

Actually, when China was liberated in the 14th century, the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival also became associated with mooncakes, desserts that were rumored to have held secret messages that encouraged rebels to gather together during the Mid-Autumn Festival to join together in revolt against the government.
In details, in late Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD), people in many parts of the country could not bear the cruel rule of the government and rose in revolt. Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD), united the different resistance forces and wanted to organize an uprising.
However, due to the strict search by government, it was very difficult to pass messages. The counselor Liu Bowen later though out the great idea of hiding notes with “uprise on the night of Mid-Autumn Day” in moon cakes and had them sent to different resistance forces. The uprising turned to be very successful and Zhu was so happy that he awarded his subjects with moon cakes on the following Mid-Autumn Festival. Since then, eating moon cakes has been a custom on this festival.
Despite the details of the story vary, the tradition of sharing mooncakes during the festival continues still today.
Nowadays, mooncakes symbolise togetherness and harmony, and every year there’s an overwhelming variety of flavours to choose from these days.
The most traditional ones are made with a lotus seed paste with a salted egg yolk centre. Mooncakes are usually eaten in small wedges with families or friends during the night of Mid-Autumn, often served with tea or wine.

Known as water caltrops, and sometimes water chestnuts, “link kok” is a lesser-known customary food only harvested once a year, usually a few weeks before the festival.
They are probably one of the weirdest-looking nuts you’ll ever see, but they have white nutty flesh with a slight crunch that tastes like a mildly sweet combination of roasted chestnuts and potato.
While some consider the chestnut an auspicious symbol of prosperity because its Chinese character is homophonous with the word ‘fok’, which means luck and prosperity in Chinese, others believe that it is eaten during the festival because of the word ‘ling’ in its Chinese name, which sounds like the same ‘ling’ in the Chinese idiom ‘chung ming ling lei’, meaning smart or clever.

But no Mid-Autumn meal would be complete without serving up some “tong yuen”, sweet glutinous rice dumplings, also symbolic in reflecting the tradition of families being together during the festival as the character ‘yuen’, is the same letter used in the Chinese word ‘tuen yuen’, which means togetherness.

Today locals pair mooncakes with all different kinds of beverages, but the most traditional during Mid-Autumn Festival is probably osmanthus wine, a Chinese alcoholic drink that uses baijiu and osmanthus flowers to create a sweet wine with a subtle floral aroma.
Osmanthus is traditionally believed to be the key to longevity and is often offered during toasts to encourage a long and healthy life. Some historical records also suggest that osmanthus flowers were exchanged between countries during the Warring States period as a symbol of peace and goodwill. The Chinese character for osmanthus ‘gwai’ also sounds similar to the word for wealth, so drinking osmanthus wine on the night of the full moon also represents the celebration of prosperity, health, and harmony.

The Mid Autumn Festival is celebrated over three days with many different traditions, events, festivities, parades and food.
In 2008, it was declared an official holiday, offering adults and children a two-day public holiday from work or from school.
The events surrounding the festival typically include an element of reunion, where families gather in the evening to enjoy special dinners, eat mooncakes, light paper lanterns and, for some, pay respects to the moon.
Each year, there are three important days to gaze at the sky among the Chinese community: on the eve of Mid-Autumn Festival when they welcome the moon, on the day of the festival to admire the moon, and on the following day to send off the moon.
This annual affair is a popular tradition that still remains in modern times and every year, families, friends, and couples flock to the best spots in town to admire the beautiful moon.

Lanterns are no doubt one of the oldest traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
For thousands of years, communities would come together during the holiday to write wishes on sky lanterns that floats up into the sky, and light them in honour of the legendary goddess of the moon, Chang’e, hoping that she would bless her worshippers with luck.

The Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance is one of the most spectacular traditions during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong.
According to the legend, in the 1880s, the villagers in Tai Hang successfully chased off plague and evil spirits by parading the village with a straw dragon covered with incense.
To commemorate the success, the villagers would perform a fire dragon dance through the alleys and streets of Tai Hang every year since.
The Tai Hang dragon is a massive structure covered in thousands of incense sticks burning on its body, made out of hemp rope, pearl straw, and ratton and requires hundreds of performers to prop it up.

Besides China, many other countries in Asia also celebrate a similar harvest festival during this time, although the names will vary slightly based on the place.
For instance, in Japan, the festival is referred to as Tsukimi, while those in Vietnam call it Tết Trung Thu….enjoy!

Images from web – Google Research

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