Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival: mooncakes, lanterns and rabbits

In the Chinese calendar, today marks a significant date. As well as being International Translation Day, this year 30 September is the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar. On this day Chinese and Vietnamese people traditionally celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival (simplified Chinese: 中秋节; traditional Chinese: 中秋節), one of the most important holidays in the Chinese calendar.

The festival has been celebrated for thousands of years, and is accompanied by various traditional stories, characters, customs and comestibles. It usually falls near to the autumn equinox and celebrates the end of the autumn harvest.

The festival is most known for the eating of mooncakes (it can also be known as Moon Festival or Mooncake festival).

Mid Autumn festival mooncake
A moon cake (image: by Lybil BER (Photographie personelle) {CC-BY-SA-3.0}, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mooncakes (simplified Chinese: 月饼; traditional Chinese: 月餅) are traditionally round or rectangular pastries, with a thin lard or oil pastry crust surrounding a rich, thick filling made from red bean or lotus seed paste. The filling can also contain one or more whole salted duck egg yolks, symbolising the moon. The cake is usually made in a mould, with patterns and chinese characters stamped into the top.

In the run-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival mooncakes sell as fast as shops can stock them. Here in London, there is a plethora of mooncakes on sale in Chinatown, with fillings including the traditional red bean paste and more unusual fruit pastes, with or without egg yolks. The best are said to be from Wonderful Patisserie, or Far East Bakery (who make their own), both on Gerrard Street.

As well as mooncakes, lanterns are lit by Chinese communities around the world to mark the festival. Streets and parks are decorated by glowing lanterns, and children are given paper lanterns to light, often in the shape of popular cartoon characters – even Angry Birds lanterns feature!

The legend of Houyi and Chang’e (the Moon Goddess) is strongly associated with the festival. There are many variations of this ancient story, but often during the festival incense in burnt in worship of Chang’e. Another character associated with the festival is the Moon rabbit or Jade rabbit, a companion to Chang’e, who lives with her on the moon and constantly pounds the elixir of life in a mortar and pestle for her. The character is based on the image of a rabbit that can be discerned in the shadows on the surface of the moon.

One Reply to “Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival: mooncakes, lanterns and rabbits”

  1. As a true fan of food … all types (just look at me!), I am “down” for some moon cake action. They look delicious and different.

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