Customs and Dishes of the Moon Festival
October 7, 2020
The Chinese Moon Festival, also referred to as the Mid-Autumn Festival, was celebrated this year on Thursday, October 1. The holiday originated from the ancient Chinese emperors’ worship of the autumn moon, praising it for the plentiful harvest, and popularized during the Tang Dynasty. Traditionally, the festival has been a farming celebration, rejoicing for prosperous produce; however, modern China typically regards the Moon Festival as a time to cherish family and togetherness, making it comparable to the American Thanksgiving.
Common customs of the Mid Autumn Festival include family reunions and meals, making offerings to the moon, hanging lanterns, and giving gifts. Nowadays, families tend to have dinner together at restaurants as opposed to at home, as the tradition has developed and adapted over time. The Chinese appreciate the moon from prime vantage points, such as roofs, balconies, mountaintops, or lakesides, with the moon itself representing connection and unification, reminding observers of their families and homelands. Following dinner, families hold ceremonies to worship the moon by placing fruit, moon cakes, incense, and candles on an outdoor table in an offering to the moon, though this tradition is dissolving across China, being increasingly uncommon in large cities. Children often partake in crafting vibrant lanterns to adorn their homes, nearby trees, or local rivers, enlightening the bleak darkness along with the moon above and creating a beautiful scene at night. Giving presents to friends and families during the festival is another upheld tradition, strengthening connections by delivering gifts to those close or sending celebration messages to those far away. The most popular gifts exchanged during this time are fruit and moon cakes, each holding a valuable significance to the holiday itself.
There are an array of specialized customs throughout China based on one’s certain province. In Hong Kong, the fire dragon dance accompanies the celebration, occurring on the fourteenth day of the eighth lunar month. The dragon is made of pearl grass, being over seventy meters long and possessing thirty-two different sections. With lively drum music enriching the streets as the dragon representing longevity rhythmically dances beneath the lights, this tradition ensures that the celebration is vigorous and spirited. Moreover, in Chinese areas such as the Hunan Province, it is popular to send melons in order to wish a child upon the receiver. It is believed that if unmarried wives without children eat the melons that they would soon be pregnant. The round shape of melons references the praised moon and theme of familial connection apparent throughout the holiday.
Because the Mid-Autumn Festival serves as a celebration of harvest, it is accompanied by an array of delicacies and unique dishes that derive from custom and tradition, uplifting the core values of the festival in an embracement of unity, harmony, and happiness.
Mooncakes, being thick but intricate pastries engulfing dense filling, act as one of the most fundamental dishes associated with the Mid Autumn Festival. Moon cakes are specialized by region and are often filled with red bean paste, sesame, fruit, lotus seed paste, nuts, or egg yolk. They are exclusively available during the autumn months, making them a signature piece of the celebration, with the round shape mirroring the autumn moon. The pastries are adorned with Chinese characters of longevity, allowing eating them to be a symbolic component of the festival. The moon during the celebration is full, which allows the mooncakes to represent fulfilled families that are healthy and harmonious.
It is a tradition to eat pumpkin during the Moon Festival because in Ancient China, the poor would eat pumpkin because they could not afford the luxury of mooncakes, with the round shape and sweetness of the gourd mimicking the nature of mooncakes. The practice of eating pumpkin has persisted and is believed to bring good health.
River snails are a crucial dish of the Mid-Autumn Festival for those living in Guangzhou, with the creatures typically being prepared with medicinal herbs to dilute their unpleasant scent. It is believed that eating river snails brightens and clears the eyes, being rich in Vitamin A.
Eating taro during the Moon Festival is said to bring good fortune, dispelling back luck and bringing riches. The tradition began during the Qing Dynasty and is said to enhance luck because taro grows when baked into pastries.
Wine fermented with osmanthus flowers has been a custom in china for over 2000 years. Osmanthus flowers are in full bloom during the Mid Autumn Festival, making this type of wine ideal and seasonal. Drinking such is thought to represent family union and promise a happy life.
A tradition in Eastern China’s Fujian Province is to cook duck duck with a specific type of taro only grown during the Mid-Autumn festival. Osmanthus flowers baked with duck and salt is also common in China’s Eastern Jiangsu Province, as such is the most well-renowned dish of Nanjing, with the tradition prevailing for over 2500 years. Smoke bake duck is preferred in Western China’s Sichuan Province, where the duck is placed in the baked censer and incensed by smoke from straw set ablaze. An old folk tale tells of expelling a corrupt ruler whose title sounded like “duck”, making the consumption of duck a culinary symbol of eliminating an oppressor. Eating duck in the autumn nourishes the body and prepares it to endure the cold and bitter winter.
Hairy crabs are another seasonal dish, being abundant in amino acids and protein that support a prosperous health. The Shanghai delicacy is often eaten during September and October making it a cherished tradition of the Mid-Autumn Festival, being eaten at family reunions. The crabs prepare to lay eggs at this time each year, which is believed to enhance their flavor.
Lotus roots are often harvested during the fall, making them another popular dish of the Mid-Autumn Festival. With the cooling climate, lotus roots offer fundamental nutrients and vitamins that help increase appetite, contributing to one’s wellbeing. A common preparation of steaming lotus roots and pairing them with glutinous rice and honey symbolizes a harmonious and fulfilling life.
The Mid Autumn Festival signifies a time of family and unity and serves as a fundamental holiday of the Chinese year.It acts as a time to reconnect and celebrate, with the dishes and traditions involved with the festival themselves reflecting the values of harmony and fulfillment.