China is a country of tradition. The Mid-Autumn Festival has been a yearly event in China since the Shang Dynasty (16th – 10th century BC) and is held on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the closest full moon to the autumnal equinox. In China, the day is commemorated with a public holiday, usually either a Friday or a Monday. This year, 2016, it will take place on the 15th September. Among Chinese festivals, the Mid Autumn Festival is second only in importance to the Spring Festival.
The ancient Chinese observed that the movement of the moon had a close relationship with changes in the seasons and agricultural production. They worshiped the moon on this day because they believed it would lead to a bountiful harvest. Consequently, the Mid Autumn Festival is also called the Harvest Moon Festival. In modern times, though worshiping the moon doesn’t figure in the festival to the same extent, the moon is still an important symbol and plays a large part in the ongoing traditions associated with the festival.
Symbolism and tradition
The moon is traditionally connected with romance and fertility. The Zhuang people, who are a large ethnic group in China, have an ancient fable that says the sun and the moon are a couple, and the stars are their children. When the moon is pregnant, it becomes round and then becomes crescent after giving birth. These beliefs made it popular for women to worship and give offerings to the moon on this evening to bless their wombs.
Many Chinese pray on this night for things such as babies, a partner and good future. The moon Goddess Chang’e is the deity who answers these prayers. Romantically, the festival commemorates Chang’e, who to protect her beloved husband, drank the elixir which his enemy wanted to drink to defeat him, and flew to the moon. She is there for eternity.
Mooncakes are cakes shaped like a full moon. The making and sharing of mooncakes are one of the hallmark traditions of the Mid Autumn Festival. The exchange and eating of mooncakes among family and friends during the week of the festival symbolizes reunion and unity among those close to you. A family reunion is also a significant aspect of the festival. It is an occasion for friends and families to gather outside and watch the moon (a symbol of harmony and unity) while drinking and eating dishes traditionally consumed at this time. The holiday is also a time of thanksgiving for good fortune and the harvest.
Other dishes served on this occasion are nine-jointed lotus roots, which symbolize peace and watermelons cut in the shape of lotus petals, which express reunion. Food offerings made to deities are placed on an altar set up in the courtyard, including apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, melons, oranges and pomelos: foods that are round.
One of the first decorations purchased for the celebration table is a clay or porcelain statue of the Jade Rabbit. In Chinese folklore, the Jade Rabbit lives on the moon and accompanies Chang’e. A notable part of celebrating the holiday is the carrying of brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers or floating sky lanterns. Another tradition involving lanterns is to write riddles on them and have people try to guess the answers. Incense is commonly burnt.
The Mid Autumn Festival has traditionally been a choice occasion to celebrate marriages and to meet potential mates. In some parts of China, dances are held for young men and women to find partners. For example, young women are encouraged to throw their handkerchiefs to the crowd and the young man who catches it and returns the handkerchief can perhaps form a relationship with the young woman.
The Mid Autumn Festival is celebrated with regional differences, but the essential aspects of the occasion are the same throughout China. The performance of public events such as lion and dragon dances takes place mainly in the south. With new technology and changing belief systems, the modern celebration doesn’t mirror the ancient festivals, but the traditions are practiced with continued popularity. Traditions are deeply embedded in Chinese society. The Mid Autumn Festival is an example of how ancient customs have survived into the modern world.
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