What Is the Moon Festival?
Evan Mantyk, Contributing Writer
Whether it’s New Year’s Eve, Christmas, or a national day like Thanksgiving, holidays are a time of family and friends, festivities, and food in the West. But what about in the East?
The Harvest Moon
The same warm spirit is also found in the biggest holidays of the East. First among them is the Chinese New Year, which is the first day in the lunar calendar traditionally used in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia. The second biggest holiday in the Chinese tradition is a celebration of the fullest and brightest moon of the Autumn and is the very same as the Harvest Moon recognized in the West, which is the full moon closest to the Fall Equinox.
This holiday always falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month—this year corresponding to October 1st. In the East, it’s called the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, and it’s worth looking into!
The Moon Festival comes with a rich tradition passed down from antiquity. The first records of the festival date to the Zhou Dynasty, approximately 3,000 years ago. Emperors throughout Chinese history worshiped the Harvest Moon in Autumn, a ritual that brought the country a plentiful harvest the following year.
In the most famous legend of the moon, the lady Chang’e (pronounced “Chang uh”) and her husband Hou Yi were given an elixir of immortality. However, a tragic accident caused her to be the only one of the couple to drink it. She floated away to the blissful realm of the Moon, where she now dwells in her Moon Palace forever separated from her Earthly love.
However, Chang’e is not all alone. Her companion is the Jade Rabbit. According to legend, three gods wanted to test the characters of three animals: the fox, the monkey, and the rabbit. The gods transformed themselves into beggars and begged for food from the animals. The fox and the monkey had plenty of food, but refused to share it with the beggars. The rabbit had no food to share, but selflessly leapt into a fire to sacrifice itself as a meal for the beggars. Touched by what they saw, the gods granted the rabbit immortality and whisked him away to the Moon Palace, where he has remained in Chang’e’s company ever since.
The Tang Dynasty
In the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Emperor Xuanzong (pronounced “shwahn zong”) was himself a practicing Taoist who was said to have magically visited the Moon Palace and beheld incredible wonders there. As a result, he held formal celebrations of the Moon Festival and the masses followed suit. Soon officials, merchants, and commoners were all holding festivities on this day with food, drink, music, dance, and, of course, moon gazing.
The moon even plays a central role in one of the most famous poems to come out of the Tang Dynasty:
Quiet Night Pondering
by Li Bai (701-762)
A bed before the bright moonlight.
Does frost below lie on these halls?
I lift my head: the moon is bright.
I lower it—my homeland calls…
The Moon Cake
The moon cake is a circular, crust-covered confection traditionally filled with lotus seed paste or sweet bean paste. Today, popular fillings include salty eggs, pineapple preserves, fig paste, and many other varieties. Today, the moon cake is an almost indispensable Moon Festival delicacy.
The moon cake originated in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), which was ruled by Mongolian invaders led by Genghis Khan. At one point, those Chinese still loyal to the previous Song Dynasty fomented a rebellion against their Mongol rulers by passing messages to each other that had been cooked into the festive moon cakes—perhaps the most inventive filling of all! The rebellion was successful and helped usher in the great Ming Dynasty.
Today’s Moon Festival
Today, the Moon Festival builds on these layers and layers of rich history and customs. Joining your friends, your family, or your community for the Moon Festival is to celebrate the Harvest Moon that farmers across the world recognize, it is to let your mind wander to the lofty heights of the Moon Palace, it is to visit with the enchanting Chang’e and Jade Rabbit, it is to walk in the footsteps of Emperor Xuanzong and poet Li Bai, it is to taste a Moon Cake before flying into a battle that will determine the fate of country and world forever… or it is the simple joy of gazing at the full Moon as it lights up the night. Whatever it is, you don’t want to miss it!