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Guide To MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL: Mooncakes, Lanterns, Legends

Discover the rabbit in the moon and the most romantic festival in Singapore

There is so much more to do in Singapore besides munching on mooncakes during this special festival.

Think a day filled with family, friends, laughter and great food. The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Lantern Festival, is a celebration that traditionally marks the end of the Autumn harvest. It is also the time of year where the moon is the biggest and brightest, spurring beautiful lunar legends – and plenty of romance.

This year, you’ll see a light sculpture of Chang E along New Bridge Rd., Eu Tong Sen St. and South Bridge Rd. Although there won’t be any live performances due to Covid-19, there are plenty of online events to get your fill on the festivities.

Commonly known as Mooncake Festival, in 2021 the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on 21 September. But what’s it all about, and what do all those mooncakes mean?

What is the Mid-Autumn Festival?

The Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar. The festival has its origins over 3,000 years ago in ancient lunar rituals practiced by the Emperor and nobility, during the Zhou Dynasty in China. However, the festival itself did not exist until it was popularised during the the Song Dynasty about a thousand years later. To copy the emperor, rich merchants began paying respect to the moon. The common citizens moved the festival more mainstream by adding lunar rituals and lanterns to their ancient mid-autumn harvest festivals.

Now, the holiday marks a time to celebrate with family and friends. In China, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a public holiday. Instead of lunar rituals, most people go travelling or simply stay at home to watch the Mid-Autumn Festival gala on TV.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is especially popular with Cantonese people, who view it as a family reunion festival and often go home to have a meal with family, on this day.

The legend behind the Mid-Autumn Festival

The most popular lunar Mid-Autumn Festival fable revolves around Chang E, the Moon Goddess. The story goes that Change E was a beautiful girl working in the Jade Palace in heaven. She was banished to live on earth after breaking the Jade Emperor’s beloved porcelain jar. On earth, Chang E met a young hunter named Hou Yi, and they became friends.

One day, ten blazing suns arose in the sky, scorching the earth, causing droughts and global warming. As a skilled archer, brave Hou Yi was asked to shoot down some of the suns. He successfully shot down nine of the ten suns, was hailed a hero and made king. Hou Yi then married Chang E. But sadly, Hou Yi wasn’t satisfied with all this. He craved more power, and sought an immortality elixir. He discovered that Chang E had just the immortality elixir he wanted. She’d been given the elixir while she was in heaven, in the form of a pill.

But Chang E worried that eternal life would make Hou Yi crazy. She took the immortality pill herself (some legends say it was a mistake). Anyway, after she took the immortality pill, Chang E floated to the moon, where she now stays for eternity.

Some legends say Chang E was turned into a frog when she got on the moon, stuck with a rabbit and the woodcutter. Others say she made friends with the rabbit who lives on the moon.

At first Hou Yi was so angry he tried to shoot Change E down with arrows, but he missed every time. After awhile, Hou Yi realised he’d been a fool, and began to miss his wife. He laid out gifts and snacks for her when the moon was full – a practice that can be seen today during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

In the end, legend says Jade Emperor took pity on Hou Yi and let him ascend to the sun and built a palace. So now Chang E and Hou Yi symbolise eternal romance and yin and yang, the moon and sun.

How to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival in Singapore?

In Singapore, moon-viewing parties with family and friends are a popular way to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. People get together to sip tea, munch on mooncakes and chat. The idea is to gaze at the moon and recite poetry about romance, harvests, gratitude… and so on.

People also like to eat duck for dinner during the Mid-Autumn Festival. There’s an old folk tale in Southern China about people who overturned a corrupt ruler. In local dialect, his name sounded like “duck”. So “to eat a duck” is to get rid of the oppressor! For more practical reasons, eating duck in Autumn has health benefits according to TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine.

One of the more popular duck dishes at this time is a a duck and taro soup, because the word for taro sounds like “good fortune coming” in several southern Chinese dialects. But if you prefer to eat roast duck or Peking duck pancakes, go right ahead!

A good snack to serve at a moon watching party is steamed edamame soy beans. Because the dialect name for edamame sounds like “praise” and “good news.”

It’s also tradition to go on a full-moon date with the person you love, to gaze at the moon and recite poetry. This habit is thought to spark lasting love. You may even see the outline of a frog or a rabbit on the bright, full moon. Who knows?

In Singapore, the streets at night come alive during this time of year. In Chinatown, you’ll see the annual lantern light-up with hundreds of lanterns and sculptures.

This year, you’ll see a light sculpture of Chang E along New Bridge Rd., Eu Tong Sen St. and South Bridge Rd.. Although there won’t be any live performances due to Covid-19, there are plenty of online events to get your fill on the festivities. Check them out here.

Why are lanterns used during the Mid-Autumn Festival?

As early as the Song Dynasty, people would float lanterns along the river during the Mid-Autumn Festival. These lanterns are traditional Chinese crafts, that date back to the Western Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago. The lanterns were traditionally made of thin paper or silk, with little candles inside. But now you can find battery-powered plastic ones that are much safer to use.

Lanterns symbolise the moon and the reunion of family. Since most lanterns are round-ish, and the word “round” in the Mandarin language sounds similar to “reunion”. Lanterns also symbolise fertility. In some areas of China, mothers send lantern messages to their married daughters, sending them good luck and wishes for children.

Now, these lanterns are more decorative and festive than anything. In Singapore, it’s quite common for children to walk around at dusk, in little parades, to show off their lanterns to each other. Sometimes they’re given gifts of hong bao, or sweets or cookies, just for fun.

The significance of mooncakes

Mooncakes are a round cake made of sweet and dense lotus seed, red bean or sesame paste, covered wih an intricately designed baked pastry crust stamped with Chinese characters like “harmony” or “longevity”. In traditional Mooncakes, you can also find one or two scrumptious egg yolks in the middle, thought to represent the full moon.

The mooncake dates back to the 13th century, when Han Chinese were fighting to overthrow an oppressive Mongol Emperor. Rebel leader Liu Bowen organised a rebellion during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which was celebrated by Chinese, but not their Mongol overlords. Li’s plan was to send out secret messages through the mooncakes given to Chinese households. The message was simple: attack on the 15th day of the eighth month. The rebellon was a success! All due to messages in mooncakes.

Today, these mooncakes symbolise tradition. Just like lanterns, the roundness of the mooncakes symbolise a family reunion, where everything is round and complete. You can also find influences of the Chang E legend in mooncake designs, and mooncake packaging – you may see paintings of beautiful Chang E on the box, or pictures of the rabbit in the moon. Mooncakes are often given as gifts, so the packaging can be as spectacular as the cakes inside the box.

Mid-Autumn Festival around the world

The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by Chinese and Asian communities all around the world. But some traditions vary, or add a new twist to the ancient Chinese origins.

How Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in China

China has a huge diversity of people and customs. So different parts of China celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival in different ways. In Guang Xi, you’ll find paper lanterns as well as pomelo lanterns – which are literally a hollowed-out pomelo citrus fruit with a burning candle inside. Pomelo lanterns are like the pumpkin lanterns used in Halloween, but the patterns cut into them are things like flowers and moon rabbits. Pomelo lanterns are used because the word pomelo in Mandarin sounds like “bless and protect the children and our descendants.”

Not only are Mid-Autumn traditions different in China, the mooncakes can be too! The typical mooncake you see in Singapore is the Cantonese mooncake. But in Suzhou the mooncakes look very different. Suzhou mooncakes originated over 1,000 years ago and are made from layers of crispy, flaky dough made with lots of sugar and lard.

Another different mooncake is the snow-skin mooncake. Originally from Hong Kong, these mooncakes are not covered in baked pastry. Instead snowskin mooncakes have a soft mochi-textured skin. They are wildly popular in Singapore and now come with inventive fillings like lychee, chocolate, caramel and more.

How Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in Malaysia

The best place to see the Mid-Autumn Festival come to life is the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. On festival night, Petaling Street in KL’s Chinatown district is the busiest place in town. You can find traditional lantern parades and Chinese opera performances, as well as lion and dragon dances that last well into the night.

Head down to popular Chinese temple, Thean Hou Temple, to see endless strings of lanterns and plenty of singing and dancing as people stroll around with lanterns, to admire the moon.

How Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in Thailand

According to Thai legend, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, eight immortals go to the Palace of the Moon and offer birthday gifts to the Goddess of Mercy – a basket of juicy peaches.

The legend says the Goddess will bring good fortune to people on Earth. The tradition lives on in Thailand where the Full-Moon Festival includes offering peach-shaped cakes at temples and street shrines. Now, Chinese-style mooncakes have also become an essential aspect of Thailand’s Mid-Autumn Festival, along with lantern decorations and moon-viewing cruises on lakes and rivers.

The raging full moon parties that fill Thai beaches are not exactly traditional – but they popular with tourists to the islands. The most famous one is at the Hadd Rin Nok Beach on Koh Phangan. This all-night beach party with DJs and laser lights takes place when the moon is brightest and biggest, on every 15th of the month.

How Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in Japan

Japanese also celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s called Tsukimi, and it’s held on the 15th day of the eighth month. The tradition also started as a celebration of the autumnal harvest, and now people also appreciate the moon, known as Otsukimi.

Instead of mooncakes, the Mid-Autumn festival food in Japan is a glutinous rice cake called Tsukimi Dango. It is usually round, symbolising the moon, health and happiness. You can find different iterations of the Tsukimi Dango. In Kansai, it’s rolled in red bean. In Nagoya, it’s shaped as a water drop. And in Okinawa, it’s covered in steamed red beans. These rice cakes will be offered, along with fruits and wines, to the moon.

Unlike lanterns, the Japanese use pampas grass as significant decor. This tall plant with silver white tassels is believed to be a token of the moon god who guards the crops. It’s also believed to keep away evil spirits.

How Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in Korea

Since it’s a lunar festival, South Koreans also celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival on the 15th day of the eighth month. It’s an important festival in Korea, called the Chuseok Festival, or Korean Thanksgiving.

This three-day holiday for family reunions has conflicting origins. Some say it started as a festival to mark a battle victory in 822 AD. Another record in North Korea shows it may have originated from a weaving competition held to mark the end of harvests. The most common belief is that Chuseok Festival takes inspiration from Chinese customs, and is an ancient way to thank ancestors for a good mid-autumn harvest.

The popularity of this festival leads to what Korean’s call the annual Autumn Travel Rush. Every year, crowds from cities travel back to their hometowns to celebrate this holiday. After reuniting, families go out to sweep and clean their ancestral tombs.

South Korean mooncakes are unique – they’re shaped like a half moon! Called Songpyeon, these half-moon shaped rice cakes are made of different fillings such as sweetened sesame paste, chestnuts or beans. The Korean mooncakes are steamed over a layer of pine needles, which add fragrance and prevents the rice cakes from sticking to each other.

Who knew there were so many regional variations of the Mid-Autumn Festival mooncake?

Originally by Pinky Chng, September 2017 + Additional reporting by Isabel Wibowo

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