Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

mooncakeToday marks the 15th day in the 8th lunar month of the year, which means many cultures throughout Asia are celebrating. This date marks the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, and is celebrated with harvest festivals in many parts of Asia. These festivals are usually celebrated as a family or community holiday, when all come together to share traditional food and spend time with each other.

Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節, also known as Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival) is celebrated in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. You may be familiar with the dense mooncakes traditionally given as gifts during this time, which involve a rich pastry crust usually filled with an egg yolk (symbolizing a full moon) and red bean or lotus seed paste. These cakes are given to friends, family and coworkers in the days leading up to the holiday. Lion dances and dragon dances are also common in parades and community celebrations, and bright lanterns adorn houses, temples and city squares.

Dragon Dance

A dragon dance performed at Pacific Asia Museum.

The tale most commonly associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival is that of Chang-e, the moon goddess. While there are many different versions, one common story begins with the couple as immortals living in heaven. Houyi is an expert archer, and when the ten sons of the Jade Emperor transform into ten suns, scorching Earth, Houyi shoots down all but one. The Jade Emperor is furious and banishes them to Earth as mortals, and Houyi goes on a quest to regain immortality. He finds it in the form of a pill which he brings home and hides. Chang’e discovers the pill and swallows it, and flies to the moon (in certain versions, she’s fleeing her angry husband. In others, he tries and fails to save her from floating away). Houyi is devastated and builds himself a palace on the sun, and once a year can visit Chang’e on the moon– a day celebrated as the Moon Festival.

In Vietnam today, the Mid-Autumn Festival also references the Chang-e story and involves similar traditions as in China, though historically the holiday originated as a festival to honor the mythical dragon who brought rain for crops. In addition to practices shared with the Chinese, there is a special emphasis on children during this holiday (Tết Trung Thu in Vietnamese). The community plans a number of activities for children that day, including crafts, parades and performances in which the children participate. Adults also give children small presents for the occasion.

Chuseok gift sets

Chuseok gift sets for sale in Korea. Source: hojusaram on Flickr.

In Korea, Chuseok (추석) is celebrated on the same day of the lunar calendar as the Mid-Autumn Festival. As in China and Vietnam, families spend this holiday together, and traditionally thank their ancestors for the harvest. Games, sport and dances accompany other traditions including visiting ancestors’ graves to remove weeds and offer special food for the occasion. One particularly important dish is songpyeon, a dumpling of sorts made of rice and filled with sesame, red bean, chestnut or other ingredients. These are steamed on pine needles, which give the songpyeon a distinctive flavor (and fill the home with the scent of fall). Families will often make these together, emphasizing the importance of family during this holiday. Koreans will also exchange gifts, though not usually of mooncakes– cookies, fruit, gift sets and even Spam are popular.

Want to experience Mid-Autumn Festival for yourself? On Sunday, October 6, we’re holding a celebration in partnership with Chinese Culture Development Center complete with performances, food, crafts and more. This event is free for members and included with admission for non-members– discounted advance tickets are available here! ~CM

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