Fares of Faith: Mid-Autumn Festival

Mid-Autumn Festival is a holiday observed during a full moon on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar (September 27 in 2015). Traditionally, it is celebrated as a harvest festival similar to Thanksgiving in North America.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, families give thanks to crops harvested throughout the year and worship the Taoist moon goddess Chang’e with all her favorite foods. It is believed that Chang’e endows her worshippers with beauty, and celebrants light lanterns in her honor so she can see them from the moon.

There are many versions of the legend of Chang’e; the best-known revolves around a hero named Hou Yi. In ancient times, 10 suns rose together, causing disaster and hardship for the people of China. Using his archery skills, Yi shot down nine of the suns, garnering him great recognition among the citizens and dazzling even the immortals, who granted him the elixir of immortality. However, knowing that immortality would mean he eventually would be separated from his beloved wife, he asked Chang’e to keep the elixir for him. One day while Yi was out hunting, his apprentice, Feng Meng, who was full of envy and anger, broke into their home to force Chang’e to give him the elixir. She refused and, in a panic, drank the elixir herself. Soon after, Chang’e flew toward the heavens, choosing to live on the moon.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, the moon shines especially bright, symbolizing happiness and wholeness. It is regarded as the perfect time for relatives near and far to come together for a family reunion and hearty meal. The laughter of children fills the air as families admire the beauty of the full moon, surrounded by glowing lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Historically, lanterns were spherical in shape, made of paper and lit with a candle. Today, lanterns typically are made of plastic and come in shapes such as a lobster (symbolizing mirth), butterfly (longevity) and star fruit (spirituality).

The Foods of Mid-Autumn Festival

Celebrations in Asia often revolve around food, and Mid-Autumn Festival — also known as the Mooncake Festival — is no exception. Mooncakes are round, sweet pastries that symbolize union and are traditionally given as gifts to family and friends. Made from densely packed lotus seed powder or red bean paste and duck egg yolks, the mooncake is a very high-calorie dessert that is best served sliced into small pieces and shared. Recent variations, such as ice cream- or chocolate-filled mochi-skinned mooncakes, have gained popularity.

Other popular Mid-Autumn Festival foods include star fruits, persimmons, lotus root, pomelo, watermelon and water caltrop — all crops typically harvested in the fall. Taro, a starchy tuber, is believed to dispel bad luck and bring good luck and wealth. Two cooked pumpkins (which, according to legend, helped cure a young girl’s ill parents) is an essential dish during the festival.

The holiday is a perfect time to enjoy osmanthus flower-infused wines and puddings. These flowers are in full bloom and full of flavor in autumn, and they also signify a happy family reunion and life.

Taoists believe the purpose of life is to achieve harmony with the natural path of existence and appreciating simplicity. For them, the connection between food and faith is undeniable, strengthening bonds between communities and families and connecting individuals with joy and completeness. Giving thanks to a bounty of crops is their way of honoring the earth.

Wendy Wu
Wendy Wu, MS, RDN, CDN, is a writer, nutrition consultant and community dietitian based in Hong Kong. She is the author of HappyDietitian.com.