What is the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival? I feel like most people have heard about Chinese New Year in the West, even if we don’t truly appreciate what the holiday entails. Personally, I didn’t know anything about the second biggest festival in the Chinese calendar until we enrolled our children in a Chinese preschool. I had heard of mooncakes but didn’t really know what they were.
So, what is it? At it’s heart, it is a harvest festival that occurs right around the time of the harvest moon. Historically, it brought family and friends together to give thanks for the year’s harvest. There is an added element of moon worship with offerings made to the moon goddess, Chang’e. Ancient Chinese emperors (3000 years ago!) would worship the harvest moon, to bring a bountiful harvest in the next year. Over time, the tradition passed to the upper classes and then eventually became common practice around the year 1300. Mooncakes were popularized shortly after.
It’s not a public holiday in Singapore (unlike in many Asian countries) but it’s still festive. Many mooncakes are exchanged and eaten, Chinatown is lit up with large lanterns and children will go on lantern walks through local parks and housing complexes.
The giving of mooncakes seems to be the most significant way in which the Mid-Autumn is marked in Singapore. It is a food-obsessed place so the focus on mooncakes is very appropriate.
Mooncakes are traditionally round (signifying the moon and unity), usually about 4-in in diameter and 1 1/2 in thick. They are made by taking a short crust or pie crust-like pastry and wrapping it around a flavored paste, like lotus bean or red bean. Sometimes nuts or seeds are mixed in and these days there is often a salted egg yolk (or two) in the center. Once the paste has been wrapped in pastry, it is put into a mooncake press and baked. They are typically kept and eaten at room temperature. This is the most common mooncake you’ll find in the US.
In recent years, snow skin mooncakes have become popular. These mooncakes resemble the traditional style in their shape although they’re usually a little smaller. These mooncakes must be eaten cold. Personally, I find snow skin mooncakes to be more innovative since they are not bound by tradition. The “pastry” is made of glutinous rice flour (it is gluten free, it’s just called that because the rice is sticky) and is similar to mochi ice cream. The inside can be pretty much anything! I’ve seen durian, ice cream, fruit jam, and chocolate. Many of them have a chocolate truffle buried in the center instead of the salted egg yolk. Sounds good, right?
Mooncakes are very rich and are meant to be shared with family members. Family is a critical part of Chinese culture and it’s present in the mooncake as well. Mooncakes are meant to be divided between family members but eaten together, symbolizing the each part of the family coming together to make it whole.
Mooncake packages are equally as diverse and extravagant as the flavors. There can be leather-bound boxes, often saved for jewelry boxes or fancy tins housing tiered presentations, appropriate for high tea.
It’s unclear how lanterns came to be associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival but at this point, I don’t think anyone can imagine the festival without lanterns. You’ve probably seen pictures of lanterns floating on rivers or flying skyward. Unfortunately, this tradition doesn’t exist in Singapore but we do lantern walks instead.
Last year, we took our children on their first lantern walk but we weren’t sure where to go. We ended up just walking around the neighborhood but we were the only ones. Now that I am a little more educated, I know that people tend to go to the bigger housing development complexes or public parks.
In addition to lantern walking, Chinatown and Gardens by the Bay will do beautiful, large lantern displays for the festival. I’m sure you’ll see people lantern walking there, too.
It’s easy to buy lanterns at Fair Price grocery stores or neighborhood shops in the housing complexes (HDB areas). It’s also really easy to make your own lanterns, this one is really simple to make and includes a printable template.
I’d love to hear what you did to mark the harvest moon. Let me know in the comments below.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!