The Mid-Autumn Festival: Mooncakes, Lanterns and Family

Beijing Longtan Lake Mid-Autumn Festival Lantern Festival. By Shizhao - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Of all the Chinese festivals, I love the Mooncake/Mid-Autumn Festival the most. Right after the scary Hungry Ghost Festival or Ghost Month, it is a lovely festival celebrating family gatherings, enjoying sweet mooncakes and admiring the full moon. Happy childhood memories are filled with beautiful lanterns, playing with candles and nibbling on lotus bean paste mooncakes. These days, where I live, Mooncake Festival preparations start even before the festival itself. Mooncakes appear in the supermarkets and restaurants, diverse and with many flavours. Mooncake fans are spoilt for choice!


Harvest Origins

A harvest festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by Asians and the Asian diaspora, for example the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Other Asian cultures have their own harvest festivals too like Tsukimi and Chuseok. It usually falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. The 15th day is always the full moon. The festival falls between late September to early October.

Double-yolk mooncake. By SoHome Jacaranda Lilau, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Double-yolk mooncake. By SoHome Jacaranda Lilau. CC BY-SA 4.0

Mooncakes, Mooooncakes!

Mooncakes! Mention Mid-Autumn Festival and you immediately think of mooncakes. Mooncakes are sweet rich baked pastry filled with red bean or lotus bean paste. Depending on which part of China you hail from, mooncakes come in various flavours, though the most common flavour you see being sold in the markets is Cantonese (Southern Chinese). The shape is often round or circular, symbolising family togetherness and reunion. The fillings are mostly sweet, but they could be savoury or made of minced meat as well.

Cantonese mooncakes are not the only delicious mooncakes available for sale during the season. You get Hokkien mooncakes with seeds and orange peel, Filipino hopia filled with mung bean, Teochew and Shanghainese ones with crusty pastry. Some are even savoury with minced meat! My personal favourite is the Cantonese mooncake with a rich salted egg yolk right in the middle of the pastry. Sometimes, you get four salted egg yolks. Traditional mooncake makers will stamp the top of the mooncake with Chinese characters indicating various flavours: single-yolk, double-yolk, lotus bean paste etc.

People living in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore and Malaysia, also enjoy baked pastry in the form of piglets. Everyone knows that Mid-Autumn Festival is on its way when they see clusters of these pastry piglets in colourful plastic baskets hanging at local bakery shops. Sometimes, the piglets start appearing way before the festival, even right smack in the middle of the Ghost Month! Now, besides the piglets, there are also carp and butterflies. These delicious pastries are either eaten plain or filled with mung bean paste. I used to collect the plastic baskets as a fun way to see how many pastry piglets I’d eaten!

Piglets in pretty baskets. By Sengkang, source.
Piglets in pretty baskets. By Sengkang. Source

Lanterns Galore, Oh Mine!

Mid-Autumn Festival will not be Mid-Autumn Festival if you forget lanterns. The festival is also called Lantern Festival (sharing the same name with the festival celebrating the end of the Lunar New Year). Kids (and adults) love lanterns. They could be made of colourful cellophane paper and crafted into many shapes. Dragons, phoenixes, chicken, goldfish and even dinosaurs. These days lanterns have become more newfangled. You get LED lanterns and plastic lanterns, using LED lights and light bulbs.  There are even musical ones with flashing lights. Lantern makers follow trends too. You get Godzilla, Superman, Batman and even all the Avengers. The crepe paper lanterns with simple floral designs are beloved too. Hung in a row across the balcony or strung between trees, they glow in the darkness, a wonderful accompaniment to tea drinking and the savouring of mooncakes.

Children adore lanterns and they get to carry them in a procession on the night of Mid-Autumn Festival. The more adventurous ones get to play with candles.


Riddle Me This

The celebration will include riddles hung on the lanterns. “Guess The Lantern Riddle” is a cherished game held during the festival where people will crack their heads to unwrap the riddles often in the form of rhyming couplets. Prizes will be given to the lucky winners.

Pomelos for sale! By Sengkang, source
Pomelos for sale! By Sengkang. Source

Togetherness: Family and Friends

Most importantly, the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates family togetherness and returning home to celebrate with loved ones. Countries like China, Taiwan and Hong Kong celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival as a major holiday. Likewise, because it’s such a major festival, there is gift-giving in the form of — you guess it — mooncakes. Retailers come up with ingenuous ways to sell their mooncakes. These days, the yummy pastry come packed lovingly in nifty tins and boxes fashioned into tiny cabinets which you can open the doors to reveal the mooncakes or wrapped individually in their own see-through bags. Every year, more dazzling designs emerge and many people have collected them as a hobby.

Mooncakes are given to family and friends as well as office bosses and co-workers. Some would also give pomelos, huge egg-shaped green citrus fruits that are synonymous with Mid-Autumn Festival.


Mid-Autumn Festival for All

It is not unusual these days to find Mid-Autumn or Mooncake Festival celebrations held in gardens, schools or community places. It is a good thing to come together to celebrate as families, as a community. What’s more enjoyable and lovely than to sip hot jasmine tea and taste scrumptious mooncakes with your friends and family members? Moreover, you get to admire the full moon which is reputedly to be larger on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.

If you are lucky,  you get to relish a delightful table full of goodies: mooncakes, pomelos, steamed or boiled baby yams and water caltrop (that looks a little like a black bat!) Not forgetting hot tea,  Chinese music and warm camaraderie.

Lanterns! By Tiamyaium, CC BY-SA 3.0
Lanterns! By Tiamyaium. CC BY-SA 3.0

What Should I Bring to a Moon Viewing?

What if a friend invites you to a Mid-Autumn Festival party or Moon Viewing celebration at their home? What should you bring? Mooncakes, of course. They would be delightful as gifts and  tasty treats for the party! You might want to ask if you could bring tea (either pu’er, jasmine or tie guan yin) along. You can get these from your nearest Asian grocery shop. Perhaps, you might even find lanterns for sale!


Most of all, enjoy the night. This is a beautiful festival!

Born in Singapore, but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction and YA. They like steampunk and tales of transfiguration/transformation. Their fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. Their YA includes a trilogy about a desert planet and a fantasy duology in Qing China. They also have a picturebook about dragons and Chinese New Year under Lantana Publishing. Follow Joyce on Twitter here or visit their website.

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Joyce Chng

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