A Festival for the Moon Goddess, Mooncakes and Lanterns

Today, Sept. 29, is the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Mooncake Festival.

This traditional holiday falls on the night of a full moon that coincides with the fall harvest. The moon on this night is believed to be at its brightest and fullest for the year.

The festival is associated with the moon goddess Chang’e, who also is the goddess of immortality. Chang’e was the wife of Hou Yi, a legendary archer.

According to one version of the myth, there was a year when 10 suns rose in the sky, which led to disaster and great suffering. To save the people, Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns, leaving one.

The archer was made king after this heroic feat. Hou Yi’s ego grew, and he became a tyrant. He eventually approached an immortal and asked for the elixir of immortality so he could cheat death.

Chang’e, fearing that her husband would rule forever with an iron fist, stole the elixir and drank it. Hou Yi shot at his wife to stop her. She escaped by flying up to the moon, where she still lives.

Today, the Mid-Autumn Festival is an occasion for family reunion. Chinese people all around the world also eat mooncakes and light lanterns.

A mooncake is pastry stuffed with bean or lotus seed paste, and nuts. Some mooncakes have a salted egg yolk inside. One particular legend may explain why the Chinese eat mooncakes at this time. It seems that when the Mongols ruled over the Han Chinese, the Chinese hid messages in mooncakes to alert others that the rebellion would take place on Mid-Autumn Day.

It’s not clear how lanterns came to be associated with the festival.

When I was a child in Singapore, my brother, cousins and I would walk around the neighborhood carrying paper lanterns on festival night. The lanterns were shaped to look like goldfish, animals or popular cartoon characters. It was a competition among the neighborhood kids to see whose lantern lasted the longest before catching on fire and burning up.


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