How to Celebrate the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival

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The Mid-Autumn Festival is an annual harvest festival that originated in China and has spread to Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. The traditional Chinese calendar holds 11 or 12 months in a year, and the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Chung Ch’iu, falls in the eighth lunar month. It’s an occasion for families to gather to eat lavish meals, honor the spirits of their ancestors, and recall the legends of the moon goddess. It’s also a chance for young women to invoke the aid of the moon goddess in finding a suitable husband.

Lantern Lighting

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Today, the Mid-Autumn Festival is one of China’s three most important lantern festivals. People young and old take part in parades featuring round, colorful sky lanterns. Parents assist ichildren in making their own paper lanterns. These lanterns are then fitted with candles and held aloft during the processions that take place on the night of the festival. The streets of the city fill with the lights of hundreds or even thousands of lanterns. One kind of lantern, a kongming, can even fly.

Meals and Desserts

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Much as American families do on Thanksgiving, Chinese families gather to eat meals that may include anywhere from five to seven courses, topped off with wine and dessert. The food most commonly associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival is a cake called the yuebing, or moon cake. Legends tell that during times of invasion in past centuries, moon cakes were used to transport messages between loyalists fighting on behalf of their country. Today, the composition and design of moon cakes vary widely according to region, but they are almost always round and contain designs on top depicting some object such as the moon or an animal. Some moon cakes contain sweet fillings with ingredients like lotus and sweet bean paste, while others are more like traditional meat pies filled with pork or sausage.

Moon Offerings

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While the offering sacrifices to the moon is not as common as it was before the Russian Revolution, the custom persists, especially among families in rural China. Because the moon is associated with femininity, the women of a household preside over this ritual, purchasing round fruits such as pears, peaches and pomegranates, which represent wholeness, and setting them out on altar plates in the light of the moon. Among families in which the traditional ceremony is still enacted, the oldest woman in the family lights a pair of red candles and offers incense. She then offers a cup of wine and recites hymns to the moon. Yet even when this ceremony is no longer performed, families enjoy the custom of gathering around a table and appreciating the moon together.

Remembering a Legend

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The story of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess, is a 4,000-year-old legend that is told and retold throughout China each year during the Mid-Autumn Festival. While several variations of the story exist, in all of them, Chang’e was an immortal who suffered from being banished to earth. She married an archer named Houyi and willingly drank a magic potion to prevent him from poisoning himself or gaining immortality. After she drank the potion, she floated to the moon. Today, the story is remembered annually in drama, puppet shows and opera, and young, unmarried women invoke Chang’e as a marital intercessor.