It is September. Lanterns are up, mooncakes are baking and every mall is plastered with versions of a beautiful lady with her pet bunny. What is happening? The Mid-Autumn Festival is coming! Easily referred to as the Mooncake Festival, get ready to feast on none other than mooncakes—baked, snow-skin, salted yolk—and gather your friends to admire the moon together.
Never celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival or knew why you were celebrating it? Here is an ultimate guide to why, when and how to celebrate this festival of the moon!
Its Origins, Legends and Tales
Perhaps the most famous of all tales connected to the Mid-Autumn Festival would be that of Chang’e. Yes, the beautiful lady with the pet bunny. Legend has it that there used to be ten suns in the sky. The scorching heat from the suns made life extremely difficult for the people, until hero and archer, Hou Yi, shot down nine of them. He was rewarded with an elixir of life that if taken, would help him ascend to the heavens and become a god. Wanting to share it with his wife, Chang’e, he left it in her care.
One day when he was out hunting, his evil disciple Feng Meng tried to force the elixir from Chang’e. In a moment of desperation, she drank the elixir and started flying to the heavens. But how could she leave her husband behind? She eventually landed on the moon, the closest place in Heaven to Earth. Hou Yi was devastated. On every full moon, he would display the cakes that Chang’e liked, hoping that she would come home.
This practice was then followed by people in the Zhou Dynasty who would worship the moon goddess in autumn, believing that the practice would bring them a plentiful harvest the following year. In the Tang Dynasty, the upper class would also admire the moon over big parties, on top of praying for a good harvest. It was in the Northern Song Dynasty when Emperor Tai declared that the 15th day of the eighth lunar month would be Mid-Autumn’s Day. From then on, people would celebrate and worship the moon in a day filled with festivities.
Wait, what about the pet bunny? Oh yes, Chang’e’s pet rabbit, also known as the Jade Rabbit, has a tale of its own. It is said that the Jade Emperor, Ruler of all Heavens, disguised himself as a hungry old man and asked three animals for food. The fox caught him a fish, the monkey brought him fruits, but the rabbit had nothing to offer. Instead, the rabbit threw itself into a fire and offered itself as meat. In gratitude, the Jade Emperor made the rabbit immortal and sent it to the moon to accompany the goddess Chang’e.
Mooncakes 吃月饼 (chī yuè bǐng)
Can you say that you’ve celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival if you didn’t eat mooncakes? I don’t think so! The tradition of eating mooncakes began in the Yuan Dynasty, which was ruled by the Mongols. In order to overthrow the then cruel government, rebel leader Zhu Yuan Zhang organised a rebellion by hiding messages in mooncakes and sending them to the different resistance forces. The rebellion successfully took place during the Mid-Autumn Festival and the eating of mooncakes to celebrate continued for subsequent years.
Mooncakes come in all shapes and sizes, from the traditional baked Cantonese mooncakes commonly found in Singapore, to the present-day ice cream mooncakes catering to both the young and old. The skin of a mooncake can be brown and doughy (Cantonese mooncakes) or colourful and chewy like mochi (Snowskin mooncakes). More often sweet than savoury, these delicious cakes are usually stuffed generously with lotus paste. You might even find a salted duck egg yolk or two!
Lanterns 提灯笼 (tí dēng lóng)
In the past, lanterns were an important lighting tool and were used to light the way when friends and family stay up to admire the full moon. As part of the festivities, children would carry handmade lanterns as they strolled the festival market. Originally made from paper and candles, the lanterns you can find today are mostly made from colourful plastic and LED lights, with some even playing music!
Solving lantern riddles (猜灯谜 cāi dēng mí) is also a popular festival game, adding to the joyful atmosphere. Riddles are written on the lanterns and the first to solve them gets a reward!
Admire the moon! 赏月 (shǎng yuè)!
Last but not least, don’t forget to admire the moon! During the Mid-Autumn Festival, the moon is at its brightest and fullest, a sight not to be missed. Take a sip of tea, a bite of mooncake, and sit back to view the moon in all its glory. But don’t point your index finger at the moon though! According to Asian superstitions, pointing at the moon will result in your ears getting cut as it is disrespectful to the moon goddess Chang’e.
Osmanthus flowers are also in full bloom during the festival period, a symbol of purity and innocence. So why not admire the sweet-smelling flowers while you’re at it?
Intrigued by Chinese culture? There’s more to discover! Learn about decades-old pu’er tea surrounded by Chinese antiquities, try your hand at wrapping bazhang (Chinese rice dumplings), or find your inner zen with a Qigong master.
Check out Culturally’s full list of experiences in Singapore here.
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