Yesterday is Mid Autumn Festival and my favourite time of the year. I have always enjoyed the mood during this period of time when family and friends exchange mooncakes and children and adults alike descend upon the park to light candles, sparkles and carry lanterns.
The celebration using these traditional forms of sublime lighting in the dimness of the park is especially atmospheric and I can almost imagine how the Tang poets might have composed a few poems just from embracing the mood and watching the full moon on a clear cloudless night.
As I was walking around the park with my children in toll, each carrying a paper lantern with a candle in it, I felt inspired to share with them the significance of this festival and why we celebrate the occasion. However I realised that I didn’t know why we Chinese celebrate this festival, I only know we do it on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. How embarrassing.
So I did some research and here’s how I will explain the traditions to them next year.
The Mid Autumn Festival is essentially a celebration of the end of fall and harvest. During the Shang dynasty many of thousands of years ago, they worshipped the moon and so the festival came about as a thanksgiving offering to the moon for the harvest and to seek blessing for a good harvest in the following year.
As an offering, the Chinese people must have thought that to please the moon, they needed to make cakes in honor of it and so mooncakes came about. It used to be that they were just made of an outer pastry filled with sweet lotus paste but nowadays it has become such a commercialised product, with a box of four costing as much as $50!
The mooncakes have an interesting historical event behind it. During the Yuan dynasty when the Han people were under the rule of the Mongols, they were able to effectively plan an uprising by exchanging messages embedded in the mooncakes.
As mooncakes are round, they also symbolise the gathering of family and loved ones and the sharing of blessings and prosperity. Apparently the cake has to be cut in equal portions according to the number of members of family.
So where does the lantern fit in all of this? I guess our traditions must have got mixed up over the years and distance from our mother’s motherland. Lanterns are seldom associated with Mid Autumn Festival but rather with Yuan Xiao which is the last day of the Chinese New Year.
Based on historical background, the lanterns were lighted as a tribute to Buddha. But a more interesting legend tells of how the emperor of heaven had ordered for a village to be burnt down when a hunter accidentally killed one of his heavenly creatures.
In order to escape the emperor’s wrath, the villagers came together to light lanterns and fireworks to give the impression that the village was on fire thus saving their village and lives.
So the Mid Autumn Festival is really about moon worship. And all the latter traditions were added on as a way to commemorate this festival. I guess I will just go back to telling my children that it we celebrate the festival just simply because. It seems more romantic and mysterious this way. The children can find out why when they are old like me.