The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Mooncake Festival, is a cherished cultural celebration that is widely observed in many Asian countries. This festival, which falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, typically in September or early October, is a time for families to come together, enjoy the sight of the full moon, and indulge in delicious mooncakes. Each country has its unique way of commemorating this event, drawing on its own traditions, customs, and legends. In this article, we’ll explore the origins the festival and delve into the customs and traditions of different Asian countries that celebrate this auspicious occasion.
The Mid-Autumn Festival has deep historical roots that date back over 3,000 years to ancient China. Its origins are intertwined with various legends, but one of the most famous is the tale of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess.
According to Chinese folklore, the story of Chang’e begins with her and her husband, Houyi, being separated due to a series of events. Chang’e is then forced to consume the elixir of immortality and floats up to live on the moon for eternity while Houyi remains on Earth.
The story of Chang’e is a central theme of the festival, as the moon is believed to be at its fullest and brightest on this night, symbolising the yearning for reunion between the couple and their undying love. The festival has thus become a time for family reunion and celebration, where families sit under the full moon, admiring its beauty while drinking tea and having mooncakes.
No doubt, mooncakes are at the heart of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. These round baked pastries are filled with sweet or savoury fillings like lotus seed paste, red bean paste, or salted egg yolks. The top of the mooncake often bears intricate designs or characters symbolising harmony and longevity. Contemporary versions of mooncakes, known as “snowskin” mooncakes due to their soft, smooth outer layer are made of glutinous rice flour and usually contain an ice cream, fruit or custard filling.
Lanterns also play an important role in the Mid-Autumn festivities. Children can often be seen parading around at night with colourful lanterns in hand, creating a wonderfully warm atmosphere.
In Taiwan, similar traditions are carried out. However, while mooncakes are an integral part of the celebration, another unique element takes centre stage: pomelos. These citrus fruits hold a special significance as they are exchanged among friends and family as a symbol of unity. This tradition is rooted in the phonetic similarity between the word “pomelo” in Chinese and the word for “togetherness,” emphasising the importance of familial bonds. After savouring the delicious citrus, the Taiwanese engage in the fun tradition of crafting pomelo hats out of the fruit peel. This whimsical activity is said to bring good fortune and not only pays homage to the Moon Goddess’s favourite fruit but also provides a delightful pastime for children, infusing the festivities with a sense of joy and playfulness.
In lieu of smaller traditional lanterns, the skies above Shifen during the Mid-Autumn Festival come alive as they are dotted with the luminous glow of grand sky lanterns that float into the atmosphere, carrying with them the hopes and wishes of many. Shifen, a town in Taiwan hosts the annual Mid-Autumn Sky Lantern Festival where participants inscribe their wishes onto the paper surfaces of the lanterns and release them into the night sky, hoping for their prayers to ascend to the heavens where they may be fulfilled by the gods above. This tradition adds a touch of magic to the festival and reinforces the spirit of hope and community that defines the Mid-Autumn celebrations in Taiwan.
Vietnam – Tet Trung Thu
Known as the “Children’s Festival” in Vietnam, Tet Trung Thu is the counterpart to the Mid-Autumn Festival. This endearing nickname stems from the lively parades that Vietnamese children partake in during the festival. The origins of this tradition can be traced back to a legend featuring a woodsman who floated to the moon on a magical banyan tree. According to the tale, the woodsman can be seen under the tree on the face of the full moon, prompting children to carry colourful lanterns as they parade through the streets to guide the woodsman safely back to Earth.
In addition to the enchanting lantern parades, Tet Trung Thu is a time when families come together to share gifts and indulge in mooncakes. It is a heartfelt expression of filial piety when families arrange fruit trays and cakes as offerings on ancestral altars within their homes, a cherished tradition that underscores the importance of honoring one’s ancestors.
Adding to the festive atmosphere are the lively lion dances that grace the celebrations. These exuberant performances not only entertain but also usher in an aura of joy and auspiciousness, further enhancing the festive spirit of Tet Trung Thu.
Korea – Chuseok
While not the same as the Mid-Autumn Festival, Korea has a similar holiday called Chuseok, which celebrates the autumn harvest and includes customs like ancestral rites and sharing traditional foods. It is one of the biggest and most important holidays in South Korea, alongside the Lunar New Year.
The celebration of Chuseok draws families together for grand reunions and heartfelt ancestral tributes known as “charye.” Many reunite with their families back in their hometowns and honour the memory of their ancestors through these memorial services. The days before and after Chuseok are designated as public holidays in South Korea, allowing individuals ample time to undertake these journeys home and fully engage in the festivities.
At these joyous gatherings, Koreans indulge in a delectable array of traditional treats, the most iconic being “songpyeon” – moon-shaped rice cakes filled with semi-sweet fillings, creating a delightful balance of flavours. Seasonal fruits and vegetables like persimmons and chestnuts also grace the feasting tables, highlighting the bountiful harvest season. “Ganggangsullae”, a traditional circle dance where participants join hands to create vibrant swirling patterns are also part of the festivities. Much like in other countries, when night falls, many venture outside to admire the full moon’s radiant glow.
In Korean folklore, the “daltokki” or the “moon rabbit” can be seen that night on the full moon, diligently crafting rice cakes, adding an enchanting element to the festivities and fostering a sense of wonder and tradition.
Japan – Tsukimi
In Japan, the full moon takes centre stage in the celebration. Tsukimi, otherwise translating to “moon-viewing” is a celebration around the beauty and serenity of the full moon. During Tsukimi, people congregate to pay homage to the moon’s brilliance while enjoying “mochi” – a beloved delicacy made from sweet or sticky rice. This rice variety has a higher starch content than regular rice, giving mochi its distinctive chewy and elastic texture.
Similar to their Korean counterparts, Japanese folklore also has its own version of the moon rabbit, known as “tsuki no usagi” who is also believed to be hard at work crafting mochi on the full moon.
Traditionally, Tsukimi involves adorning homes with pampas grass, symbolising a bountiful harvest and a season of abundance. As part of the celebration, an array of delectable treats is enjoyed. Among them is “tsukimi-dango” an exquisite round rice dumpling symbolising health and happiness. Seasonal treasures such as chestnuts and pumpkins are also savoured, each carrying its unique significance within the festival.
Eggs, with their oval shape and pure white hue, are also an integral part of the Tsukimi feast. They are believed to symbolise the full moon, adding a touch of visual poetry to the culinary offerings. This thoughtful selection of foods not only indulges the palate but also weaves together a rich tapestry of tradition, symbolism, and reverence for the moon’s ethereal beauty.
The Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated across various Asian countries, is a testament to the importance of family, unity, and cultural heritage. While the customs and traditions may differ, the common thread of gathering under the full moon and sharing mooncakes unites these diverse cultures. It’s a time to reflect on the legends, stories, and myths that have been passed down through generations, and to appreciate the beauty of the moon that has inspired these rich traditions.