Turns out there’s much more to the Mid-Autumn Festival than mooncakes. Read on to learn more about this important festival and what it means to the people in Hong Kong.
Mad for mooncakes? Aren’t we all. Aside from having a public holiday the day after (yep, not on the day of the actual festival – more on that later), Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most noteworthy occasions of the year. Going beyond mere superstitions, this day calls for gathering with your loved ones, paying respect to ancestors and deities, and honouring traditions. Having given you the lowdown on Chinese New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival, we’re now here to guide you through the Mid-Autumn Festival.
How ‘mid’ is the Mid-Autumn Festival?
While autumn falls between September and November in Hong Kong, the Mid-Autumn Festival is calculated according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar and not the Gregorian calendar. So, the date we celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival isn’t necessarily right in the middle of fall; it’s on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. Not only is this when the moon is believed to be at its brightest and fullest, but this time of year also coincides with the gathering of crops, making Mid-Autumn Festival the prime time to celebrate bountiful harvests.
Storytime: Origin and myths about the Mid-Autumn Festival
The Mid-Autumn Festival dates back to over 3,000 years ago in ancient China, when the people in the Shang dynasty would celebrate their harvest during the full moon. However, full-fledged celebrations didn’t come into play until the early Tang dynasty, when the emperors began staging rituals in the palace. By the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Mid-Autumn Festival had become one of the most prominent folk festivals in China.
In addition, there are many myths and legends surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival. The most famous one has got to be the tale of Chang E, a beautiful woman who was married to Hou Yi, a young hunter. After Hou Yi became a hero for saving the earth by shooting down nine suns in the sky (yes, that happened – though that’s another story), he was rewarded with an elixir of immortality. What exactly happened afterwards has been up for debate. Some say that Chang E took the elixir by accident, angering Hou Yi; others believe that Chang E did it to prevent the elixir from being stolen by Hou Yi’s apprentice.
Either way, Chang E had to flee the earth, and she ended up residing on the moon as the Moon Goddess. Fortunately, she has some companions in the night sky to keep her company, namely the Moon Rabbit (also known as Jade Rabbit) and a logger. So, don’t be too surprised if you spot two blurry figures and a bunny next time you look up to the moon!
We love mooncakes to the moon and back
Ah, mooncakes – who can resist them? Enjoying these flavourful pastries, which are typically filled with red bean or lotus seed paste with salted egg yolk, is one of the hallmark traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival. This is partly due to the symbolism of the mooncake, as its roundness signifies reunion and completeness. Giving thanks for family unity is the core of the Mid-Autumn Festival, hence mooncakes are shared among the family to celebrate harmony during the Mid-Autumn Festival. While making mooncakes at home used to be the norm, gifting readymade mooncakes between families is the common practice nowadays. Also, mooncake crusts and fillings have become increasingly varied. From the traditional mixed nuts (aka five kernels), to ice cream fillings, to mini ‘snow skin’ mooncakes (made from glutinous rice) loaded with custard, we’re spoilt for choice!
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TL;DR: do’s and don’ts
If you’re worried about making a fool of yourself during the Mid-Autumn Festival (though don’t worry, we won’t judge), just keep these basic guidelines in mind:
1. Do have fun crafting your own lanterns (and show them off for some lovin’!)
No one knows for sure how exactly lanterns became part of the Mid-Autumn Festival tradition, but their symbolism is clear. Lighting up people’s paths to prosperity and fortune, lanterns of all shapes and sizes always emerge across the city near the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The rabbit is a popular design for lanterns, and so is the starfruit (or carambola), a seasonal fruit meant to bring good luck. If you’re not the crafty type, don’t fret – have a go at guessing the riddles written on the lanterns instead! (You guessed it – they’re called lantern riddles.)
2. Don’t book the wrong date for your day-off plans
Have you ever realised that the public holiday for the Mid-Autumn Festival isn’t actually on the day of the festival itself? Instead, it lies on the day after the festival. This is because most festivities happen at night, including moon-watching, lantern exhibitions, traditional stage shows, and more. FYI, the Mid-Autumn Festival is on Tuesday, 21 September this year, so don’t forget to plan ahead.
3. Don’t boil wax
We aren’t talking about burning one or two candles, mate. Wax-burning used to be a common entertainment for kids during the Mid-Autumn Festival, as they utilised leftover mooncake tins as makeshift cauldrons. After starting a flame with a bunch of candles, and boosting it with flammable garbage, kids would then splash water on the fire to create a kickback. Cue the sizzle and the smoke! Sounds fun? Not so much – not when the volatile fireball goes out of control, injuring bystanders (potentially causing severe third-degree burns) every year. A law was finally implemented in 2003 to deter this activity, making wax-boiling a thing of the past.