Ah, the Mid-Autumn Festival! Or, as it’s sometimes called in Singapore, the Lantern Festival! (Not to be confused with the Lantern Festival at the end of Chinese New Year.) Many cultures celebrate the harvest, as it’s the time of year when all the hard work of planting and sowing, watering and feeding, protecting and watching over the year’s crops is finally rewarded! Food is in abundance! America and Canada don’t celebrate their harvest festivals (known as Thanksgiving) until later in the year, but many cultures—including the Chinese—celebrate their harvest festival around the fall equinox.
Because the Chinese base their holidays and traditions on the Han Calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节, pronounced “Zhōngqiū jié”) kicks off on the 15th day of the 8th month, which is the night of the full moon (always within 15 days of equinox). This year it kicked off on September 8th, a day Junwen and I made sure to enjoy mooncakes!
What are mooncakes? As a non-Asian, as far as I can tell, mooncakes are an absolute MUST for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Like turkey on Thanksgiving, it wouldn’t feel like 中秋节 if we don’t eat mooncakes! These delicious, calorie-rich, mouth-watering delectables can be purchased individually for as little as $5 at a Chinese bakery (check out these places in LA), or they can be purchased as a set in a beautifully decorated package done up nicely for gift-giving. I first encountered these gifts when the Chinese students in my research group brought them to a fall party.
When I asked my officemate about it, she told me that her mother would actually make these for the holiday, though now it is more common to purchase them and give them as gifts to family and friends. The most typical kind I’ve encountered here in Los Angeles (and by far my favorite) is filled with lotus seed paste. Red bean paste is also common, but what’s “typical” also varies by location. (Click HERE to see a list of top mooncake flavors.) My officemate told me that it was here in Los Angeles that she first tried the lotus seed variety, because the lotus seed mooncake is typical of southern China and Taiwan (not where she grew up). Although you can purchase “plain” mooncakes, most contain a salty egg yolk in the center—sometimes even two or four! The yolk symbolizes the full moon, or in the case of four yolks, the four phases of the moon. (See the image above of a mooncake with one yolk cut in half.)
We actually had the pleasure of being in Singapore during last year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, which means I got to walk through the mall sampling all different types of flavors being sold by different vendors! We were introduced to a “new” kind of mooncake: the snow skin. The feeling in Singapore was that this snow skin variety was meant to reach the younger generation who are always wanting new and cool things. No one (myself included) preferred these to the original, though! If you have tried them, what do you think of them? Do you like the original better? Let us know in the comments! These remind me of mochi with an artificially flavored fruit filling.
From Singapore’s secondary description of the holiday as “The Lantern Festival”, you might also guess that aside from mooncakes, lanterns are a big component in the celebration. While in Singapore, paper lanterns could be found in any market we visited. The whole extended family celebrated by gathering at Junwen’s Ah Ma’s house (Ah Ma = paternal grandmother), eating a big meal, and lighting a bunch of these paper lanterns. The lantern lighting was mostly focused on the children, as I noticed the parents lighting them and allowing the kids to carry them around in the yard.
So far, you’ve read a Westerner’s experience learning about a new holiday. Learning new and different things about each other’s culture is one thing awesome about being a Dutchinese couple! But what we find even more amazing are the times we realize there are unexpected parallels between our upbringings. Take this Lantern Festival, held every August-September by Chinese and other Asian cultures. You’d never believe it, but I also grew up enjoying a Lantern Festival (we called it a Lantern Parade) every August! In Sheboygan, every August, the children of surrounding schools would make paper lanterns and then parade them around Vollrath Bowl, a grassy “bowl” that is part of a park near my childhood home. The local community would gather as dusk settled in, sitting on blankets on the hills of the bowl to enjoy the children’s artwork. I have tried extensive Google searches but cannot unearth the origins of this annual Lantern Parade, but the fact that it occurred at the same time of year as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival seemed too coincidental! If any of you have any clue as to whether or not this tradition was inspired by the Chinese holiday, I’d love to know!
Sadly, after 75 years of bringing the community together, this tradition was ended. Thankfully for me, I can continue the tradition of my childhood through the traditions of my new family and their holiday, the Mid-Autumn (Lantern) Festival!