Chinese New Year is known as the biggest holiday of Chinese people. I compare it to American Christmas. But not many people know the mid-autumn festival also called the Full-Moon Festival, which I compare to Chinese Thanksgiving.
The Chinese mid-autumn or Full-Moon festival is always on August 15 of the Chinese lunar calendar. Don’t ask me how to calculate the calendar. It is like the Western calendar but based on moon cycles. It is published annually, and I follow it without question. On the night of the Full-Moon Festival, the moon is said to be the brightest and the fullest. That’s why it’s called the Full-Moon Festival. This year, the mid-autumn festival lands on the Western calendar date of October 5th, which is late. The mid-autumn festival usually occurs in September, but I wouldn’t question the Chinese lunar calendar any more than I would question the Western calendar.
The mid-autumn festival is my second favorite Chinese holiday because I get to eat moon cake and all kinds of fruit. We usually have family dinner, then the grown-ups will sip tea and eat moon cake. Children light up paper lanterns and walk around the neighborhood. We call this “admiring the full moon.”
The meaning of the mid-autumn festival is very close to the meaning of Thanksgiving. It’s about having family gather together and giving thanks for the harvest as we enter fall. The full moon (a big circle) also symbolizes family coming together as a whole.
There is also a very famous fairy tale behind the Full Moon festival.
In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang’e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved her husband very much and hoped to live nearby him, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e, they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.
The two most important things that you have to have in the Chinese Full Moon Festival are moon cakes and lanterns.
The traditional moon cake is a round pastry filled with lotus paste and egg yolk (representing the moon). This variety of cake is my favorite. Other varieties are red bean paste and egg custard (my second favorite). Some regions filled their moon cakes with nuts and make them savory. Nowadays, you can find moon cakes in any shape and with any fillings. For example, Haagen-Dazs has an ice cream moon cake! They cleverly replaced the pastry with chocolate and lotus paste with ice cream. It’s pretty good.
For lanterns, the traditional ones are made with paper and you put a candle in the middle to light them. Today, you can also find plastic Sponge Bob or Transformer lanterns lit with a bulb, depending on what movie is popular at the moment.
Ever since I had my daughter, I try to keep the tradition of celebrating the Full Moon Festival going here in Vermont.
I invite friends over for a feast. If I have time, I will make a trip to Montreal to get the ingredients to celebrate with traditional Chinese food. This means I try to cook everything with the head and tail still on. Cooking the whole body of a fish or animal is important because it represents wholeness and togetherness. My family usually sends me moon cakes and lanterns from Hong Kong. After dinner, we’ll make tea and sit on the deck to admire the moon. The children light lanterns and walk around in the backyard.
The festive atmosphere is never the same in Vermont, but at least my daughter has the opportunity to eat moon cake and light up lanterns once a year, just like I did when I was a child. It is important to me to pass this tradition down to my daughter so that she understands our history and culture.
Guest Blogger: Linda Li
Linda was born and raised in Hong Kong and came to America 20 years ago. She became a Chinese-English interpreter and translator in 2004. She noticed many families struggling with raising bicultural and bilingual children in Vermont. The cultural clash is real. She’s passionate to use her own experience to help other families. She’s now a licensed social worker and she works at the Community Health Center of Burlington as the Pediatric Social Worker and Child Therapist.
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