The Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhongqiu Jie) is a traditional Chinese holiday and Taoist festival that is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, around the time of the autumn equinox. It has its roots in the Shang dynasty tradition of moon worship, and is held at a time of the year when moon is at its “fullest” -- visually most large and bright.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is second only to Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) in terms of its importance. Other names for this festival include: Moon Festival; Mooncake Festival; Lantern Festival; Fifteenth Of The Eighth Moon; and Festival Of Reunion (since it is a time when family members often come together to celebrate). The Mid-Autumn Festival is a time when farmers celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season, and when family members gather to appreciate the beauty of the autumn moon.
Mid-Autumn Festival Mooncakes
One of the most common traditions associated with Zhongqiu Jie involves making and eating mooncakes: sweet round cakes, about three inches in diameter, which are similar to English fruitcakes or plum pudding. There are hundreds of varieties of mooncakes, but typically they have a filling of nuts, melon seeds, lotus-seed paste, Chinese dates, almonds, minced meats and/or orange peels.
This rich filling is held within a golden-brown pastry crust, and a cooked egg yolk is placed decoratively right in the center. The crust is often adorned with symbols associated with the Mid-Autumn festival. It’s traditional to pile thirteen mooncakes into a pyramid, symbolizing the thirteen moons of a complete lunar year. And of course the best place to eat the mooncakes is outside under the moon!
Other foods associated with the Mooncake Festival include cooked taro, water caltrope (a type of water chestnut), and edible snails (from the rice paddies or taro patches) cooked with sweet basil.
Other Mid-Autumn Festival Traditions
Other Mid-Autumn Festival activities include:
1. Creating an altar and burning incense in honor of Chang'e - the Chinese Goddess of the Moon – and other Taoist deities. Altars honoring Chang’e are set up in the open air, facing the moon. New lotion, bath salts, make-up and other “beauty aids” are placed on the altar for her to bless. (Chang’e endows those who worship her with great beauty.)
2. Carrying brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, or floating sky lanterns. Huge lantern shows are a part of some Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations.
3. Planting trees; collecting dandelion leaves for all of ones family members; and putting pomelo rinds on one's head.
4. Performing or attending Fire Dragon Dances, or other performances in public parks or theatres.
5. Enjoying an elaborate family reunion dinner.
The Legend Of Chang’e – The Chinese Moon Goddess
The legend of Chang’e – the Chinese Moon Goddess – comes in many different forms. All of them (that I’ve come across so far) unfold in the context of Chang’e’s relationship with the archer Hou Yi; involve the search for an elixir of Immortality; and end with Chang’e living on the moon. Here’s one version of this legend (which appears in a number of online locations – I’m not sure who is its original “author”):
“A long, long time ago, a terrible drought plagued the earth. Ten suns burned fiercely in the sky like smoldering volcanoes. The trees and grass were scorched. The land was cracked and parched, and rivers ran dry. Many people died of hunger and thirst.
The King of Heaven sent Hou Yi down to the earth to help. When Hou Yi arrived, he took out his red bow and white arrows and shot down nine suns one after another. The weather immediately turned cooler. Heavy rains filled the rivers with fresh water and the grass and trees turned green. Life had been restored and humanity was saved.
One day, a charming young woman, Chang'e makes her way home from a stream, holding a bamboo contaiver, A young man comes forward, asking for a drink. When she sees the red bow and white arrows hanging from his belt, Chang'e tealizes that he is their savior, Hou Yi. Inviting him to drink, Chang'e plucks a beautiful flower and gives it to him as a token of respect. Hou Yi, in turn, selects a beautiful silver fox fur as his gift for her. This meeting kindles the spark of their love. And soon after that, they get married.
A mortal's life is limited, of course. So in order to enjoy his happy life with Chang'e forever, Hou Yi decides to look for an elixir of life.He goes to the Kunlun Mountains where the Western Queen Mother lives.
Out of respect for the good deeds the has done, the Western Queen Mother rewards Hou Yi with elixir, a fine powder made from kerndls of fruit which grows on the tree of eternity. At the same time, she tells him:If you and your wife share the elixir, you will both enjoy eternal life. But if only one of you takes it,that one will ascend to Heaven and become immortal.
Hou Yi returns home and tells his wife all that has happened and they decide to drink the elixir together on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month when the moon is full and bright.
A wicked and merciless man named Feng Meng secretly hears about their plan.He wishes chang eHou Yi an early death so that he can drink the elixir himeslf and become immortal.His opportunity finally arrives. One day,when the full moon is rising, Hou Yi is on his way home from hunting. Feng Meng kills him. The murderer then runs to Hou Yi's home and forces Chang'e to give him the elixir, Without hesitating, Chang'e picks up the elixir and drinks it all.
Overcome with grief, Chang'e rushes to her dead husband's sied, weeping bitterly.Soon the elixir begins to have its effect and Chang'e feels herself being lifted towards Heaven.
Chang'e decides to live on the moon because it is nearest to the earth. There she lives a simple and contented life. Even though she is in Heaven, her heart remains in the world of mortals. Never does she forget the deep love she has for Hou Yi and the love she feels for the people who have shared their sadness and happiness.”