It’s like a backyard cookout with a patriotic supernatural anti-global-warming twist
Fall festivals are common in societies with agricultural roots. Communities join to gather the harvest and give thanks before cold weather sets in; the autumnal equinox and migrating animals tell us to prepare for changes. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Labor Day (US and Canada), and other Western holidays all come from these roots.
In China for well over 2,000 years the celebrations of the New Year (Lantern Festival) and the Mid-Autumn Festival have been observed, always six lunar months apart to give the year cosmic balance. Days grow long; days grow short. Prepare for awakening; prepare for the long sleep.
Elements of the festival
On the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, families and friends gather in the evening as the full moon comes over the horizon. Lanterns are lit, foods and wine are prepared and enjoyed, stories are told, and as the night continues, everyone takes time to gaze at the moon and stars.
In different parts of China, and in Chinese communities around the world, there may also be tree-planting events, burning of incense, late-night moonlit boat rides, and fire-dragon dances. There is also a Vietnamese version of this holiday that includes lantern parades and lion dances.
Traditional foods for the festival include:
Fruits like apples, oranges, peaches, and melons
Taro and water chestnuts
and of course, Mooncakes
The Mighty Mooncake
They’ve been described as the Chinese version of fruitcake - and in fact it’s traditional to send mooncakes to distant relatives and business associates for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Starting a month before the holiday, shops will set up large displays of elegantly-packaged ‘cakes and bakeries will show off their creativity in design and use of special ingredients.
And just like fruitcakes, mooncakes can include all sorts of fillings, such as lotus seeds, melon seeds, walnuts, red bean paste, duck-egg yolks, candied fruits and orange peel. The top of the ‘cake is decorated with Chinese characters describing the festival.
Mooncakes may be small (about the size of a hockey puck or fast-food hamburger), but they’re very dense and are supposed to be eaten slowly and thoughtfully, and shared with the group. A good cup of coffee or a nice bold hot tea complements the flavors in the mooncake and goes well on a crisp autumn evening outdoors.
A complicated origin story
Like so many festivals based on Chinese myths and folktales, there are several versions of the basic story, which is more than 4,000 years old:
The ancient Xia dynasty (around 2200-2000 BCE) used a moon-worshipping religion, and the events of the story take place around this time.
The two central characters in the story are HouYi, a renowned hunter and martial arts expert, and his wife, Chang’e. In some stories, these two are mere humans; in others they were minor deities who were sent to Earth (for either good or bad reasons.) Sometimes they’re together at the beginning of the story; sometimes they meet and fall in love halfway through.
All the stories tell that Earth was plagued with drought and fire, starvation and panic, due to the presence of 10 suns wildly orbiting our planet. HouYi went to Kunlun Mountain and used his superhuman strength and enchanted red bow and white arrows to destroy 9 of the suns, and set the 10th sun into its fixed position so Earth could have regular day and night. HouYi is acclaimed as a hero.
HouYi either sets up shop as a martial-arts master, works as a special agent for Emperor Yao, is a go-between between Earth and the heavenly realms, or becomes a tyrannical dictator, depending on the version you read.
He comes into possession of a special pill or potion that grants eternal life. In some stories the Empress of Heaven, Wangmu, gives it to him so he and Chang’e can live together forever in love and happiness; in others it comes from Emperor Yao as praise for a job well-done, and in the really dark version it comes from murdered young boys. (There’s a story for every genre, apparently.)
All the stories come back together around the plot point of the pill / potion needing to be safely hidden for a while, although the reasons vary and the amount of time ranges from a day to an entire year. But the day that the pill / potion was to be used is always the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.
In some stories, there is a villain called Peng Meng or Feng Meng who is usually a shifty character working at HouYi’s martial-arts dojo. Peng Meng somehow finds out that the pill / potion exists and he wants it all for himself. Peng Meng either waits for HouYi to leave town on a hunting party - or kills HouYi - and breaks into HouYi’s house. There he encounters Chang’e, who refuses to give him the treasure. Peng Meng tries to attack Chang’e but she gets away and swallows the pill / potion rather than let the villain take it from her.
In the dark version, Chang’e finds the pill and takes it intentionally to prevent HouYi from terrorizing the people forever.
In yet another version, HouYi didn’t tell Chang’e about the pill, but she finds it hidden in the house, and for some reason, swallows it. (This story version seems to me like proof China invented the ‘sitcom’ 4,000 years before I Love Lucy went on the air...)
In most versions the pill was supposed to have been split in two - one half each for husband and wife, so that each could live forever. Unfortunately, the side effects of one person taking both doses was ascension to minor-deity status, weightlessness, and the inability to ever live on Earth again.
The romantic-tragedy tellings of the story have either Chang’e standing over HouYi’s body - as she cries with pain at losing her love she starts to phase out of our plane of existence and into the Realm of Heaven; or with HouYi desperately racing across the mountains and fields to catch up to his wife as she floats further away - with panic and grief he calls out to the night sky and prepares offerings, and finally hears her call and sees her face in the Moon, where she dwells in the Lunar Temple.
In some versions, HouYi goes to live in the Solar Temple, and the two lovers finally get to meet once a year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. In other versions, the folk of Emperor Yao’s kingdom hold a ceremony every year to remember the love and loss in the story. And in still other versions, Chang’e commands the Hare on the Moon to prepare the potion that will restore HouYi and bring him to the Moon so they can be together again.
Another later story tells of how the Mid-Autumn Festival played a part in the rise of the Ming Dynasty and the overthrow of the Mongol-run Yuan Dynasty (14th Century). The Mongols had banned the Chinese from group gatherings to suppress rebellion, but still allowed the Mid-Autumn Festival to be observed. A rebel leader in Zhejiang distributed thousands of mooncakes to city residents, each with a slip of paper hidden inside with directions for a mass-uprising. On the night of the festival, the rebels attacked from outside and the city residents rioted from inside, successfully overthrowing the Mongol rulers.
Finally, in the 21st Century, China’s manned space program uses Chang’e-series vehicles in poetic honor of the Lady in the Moon.
Incorporating Traditions at Home
The Mid-Autumn Festival happens at a convenient time in North America, shortly after the school year traditionally begins. It’s still comfortable enough in most parts of the continent to sit out after dark around a campfire and visit with friends and neighbors.
The festival season is based on lunar cycles, so it moves around each year:
- 2015: September 27
- 2016: September 15
- 2017: October 4
- 2018: September 24
- 2019: September 13
- 2020: October 1
- 2021: September 21
This is a kid-friendly holiday - outside of getting to stay up late, most of the activities and foods are sure to please children, too:
Grilling is a popular activity in Asia, and in North America too! Roast meats are tasty - as are s’mores...
Pass out mooncakes (bake your own or pick up a tray at your local Asian supermarket) - or in a pinch, have cupcakes instead. (Be sure to add nuts and fruits to the batter, and decorate with stars and moons!)
Hang up lanterns around the home and garden
Decorate with moon / outer-space theme decorations
Get out the binoculars or telescope to admire the night sky, look for satellites, and examine the full moon