Social Update: Mid-Autumnal Festival and a Slice of Asian Tradition

This very year, fall ushers in a panoply of holidays. From Halloween to Thanksgiving Day, major holidays in the United States are celebrated with massive public celebrations. Unfortunately, many smaller celebrations go unnoticed for most Westerners. The end of summer and the beginning of fall signifies a notable milestone in the calendar year--it marks the end of the agricultural growing season in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of the harvest season.

Think about it for a second--do you ever wonder about the significance of the ‘summer-break’ associated with the American education system? You might be surprised to know that it has nothing to do with the perfect time to go to the beach and more to do with an agricultural tradition so ingrained in our culture that we just can’t seem to shuck it off. Historically, school-aged adolescents were involved in the planting and harvesting process in such an indispensable way that a lengthy break was required to complete the planting and harvesting season. While we’ve long forgotten this practice (mostly in the United States) due to an automation of agriculture, in Asian Culture, awareness of the harvest season is alive and well, with the celebration referred to as the Mid-Autumnal Festival.

The Mid-Autumnal Festival stems from ancient times, when people would moon worship and make sacrifices in return for a bountiful harvest. While these practices have been abandoned, popular folklore associated with the tradition have been passed on. For example, one famous story of the tradition begins with an emperor and an archer. Because there were 10 suns that revolved around the earth, an emperor wanted the archer to shoot down the 9 extra suns. In return, the emperor would provide the archer with an elixir that would grant him immortality. After shooting down the 9 suns, the emperor provided the elixir to the archer. Unfortunately, while the archer was away from his home--where he left the elixir with his wife--someone came to his house to steal his immortality potion. Without any other option, the archer’s wife took the elixir, out of fear that the robber would be granted immortality. It was thought that the archer’s wife floated up to the moon and, thereafter, people would pray to the moon for safekeeping and bounty.

To many Asians, the Mid-Autumnal Festival is the second most celebrated holiday after Chinese New Year.  Each year, the Mid-Autumnal Festival coincides with September’s full moon. This year, the full moon falls on September 16th in the Northern Hemisphere, with the festival spanning September 15-17th. The festival is thought to have originated during the Shang Dynasty (16-10 BCE), primarily focused on celebrating the harvest. The festival has evolved over the millennia to be less of a celebration of agriculture and more about family, thanksgiving, and praying.

As with any celebration, however, food and libations are the staples that bind. One popular food item of the Mid-Autumnal Festival is the sharing of mooncake. Mooncake is a simple pastry that contains sweet or savory dense filling. Give it a try with any of the many traditional recipes shared all over the Internet. For obvious reasons, mooncakes are round in shape, like the full harvest moon. Because mooncakes are meant to be shared, they are usually eaten in small wedges and shared by family members, generally with Chinese tea. Alternatively, a celebratory glass of Cassia wine may be had, which is a traditional choice for reunions often drunk during the Mid-Autumnal Festival. This September, Chinatown in Los Angeles celebrates its 78th Annual Mid-Autumn Festival. If you can’t make this celebration, be sure to find a festival near you to celebrate a little slice of Asian culture.