The Mid-Autumn Festival is a traditional festival celebrated in various regions of Eastern and Southeastern Asia. Also known as the Mooncake Festival or Moon Festival, this holiday is observed in Mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
This holiday is observed on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which also coincides with a full moon. This means that the holiday is celebrated sometime between mid-September and early October.
The History of the Mid-Autumn Festival
The holiday has been celebrated for at least 3,600 years. It was initially celebrated as a harvest festival during the Shang Dynasty. For various indigenous groups living in ancient China, harvest time commemorated the dragon that brought rain for their crops.
At that time, the holiday was not widespread across Asia, and it would not be until the 7th century that the celebration began to be observed as a festival celebrated throughout Asia.
According to legend, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang started to hold formal celebrations of this holiday in his palace. Although early celebrations of this holiday were very much concerned with moon worship, the modern practice of this holiday and the associated festival has more to do with the autumnal harvest.
It became a time to enjoy the successful harvest of wheat and rice. While at one point it may have been traditional to make offerings of wheat and rice to the moon, now people enjoy mooncakes, admire the moon, and celebrate their festival of harmony and unity.
Other Names for the Mid-Autumn Festival
This holiday goes by a variety of names around the world and even has several different names within China alone. Below are some of the other names used for this holiday in parts of Asia. The Mid-Autumn Festival is what this holiday and festival are called in English.
- Lantern Festival
- Reunion Festival
- Zhōngqiū Jié
- Jūng-chāu Jit
- Tết Trung Thu
- Moon Festival
- Harvest Moon Festival
Mid-Autumn Festival Observations
One of the main practices during this festival is the use of lanterns. Brightly lit lanterns are carried and placed on towers. People also light sky lanterns and release them into the sky. Another common tradition is the practice of lantern riddles.
This involves writing riddles on lanterns for others to solve. Although early traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival did not involve the use of lanterns, it is believed that they were added because lanterns symbolize fertility.
As China evolved from an agriculturally based country to a more modernized one, other traditions began to be added to this festival. Lanterns represent just one of the symbols borrowed from other festivals. Lanterns are not only an important symbol in Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in China but are also used in Vietnamese celebrations.
In Vietnam, children participate in parades with lanterns of various sizes, shapes, and colors. Sometimes they even wear elaborate masks made out of papier-mâché. Another common part of this festival is the making and sharing of mooncakes.
In Asian cultures, the round shape of these mooncakes symbolizes completeness. In some parts of China, there is a tradition of making these mooncakes on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Of course, mooncakes are not the only foods made and consumed on this holiday.
People also make food offerings to deities placed on courtyard altars—offerings that include pears, grapes, peaches, melons, or oranges. In Vietnam, cakes and fruits are arranged into elaborate displays of familiar or mythological animals such as dogs, cats, and unicorns.
Another purpose of this holiday is to celebrate marriages or to wish for the moon deity to fulfill a person’s romantic desires. In many parts of China, dances are held for young men and women to find partners.
In Vietnam, the holiday also serves a matchmaking potential, with many young women and men using the festival as an opportunity to meet future spouses.
There are also a variety of games played on this day. One game is called Ascent to Heaven. Other games include Descent into the Garden and Descent of the Eight Immortals. Children often play a game called Circling The Toad.
This game involves a group of people forming a circle around a child chosen to be the Toad King—a child transformed into a toad by magic. He then jumps around until water is sprinkled on his head, and he is turned back into a child.