Have you heard of Mid-Autumn Festival?

Also known as Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival, this special holiday takes place in China every September or early October.

I have been in China for quite a few years and have been lucky enough to join in on the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations.

I’ll get to the celebrations later, but for now, when does the holiday actually take place?

When is Mid-Autumn Festival?

As is the case with quite a few Chinese holidays, the specific date is dictated by the lunar calendar. This means that the date changes slightly from year to year.

Mid-Autumn Festival always falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. This is considered to be around the start of autumn for many countries in the northern hemisphere.

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In 2021, the festival will be celebrated on September 21st.

Then it will take place on September 10th in 2022 and September 29th in 2023.

Why do Chinese people celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival?

The festival is actually celebrated in many East Asian countries and naturally each community has slightly different traditions.

I’m here to tell you how China came to recognize this ancient holiday.

Chinese family celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival

Chinese families celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival together. Image by Lesia Povkh on Shutterstock.

Often, Mid-Autumn Festival is likened to a Chinese version of America’s Thanksgiving. This is because it’s a time for family reunions and plenty of food.

I’d say this holiday is the second biggest in China after Chinese New Year (which you can read more about here.)

How did Mid-Autumn Festival start?

The holiday is said to have roots in the Shang Dynasty, which took place around 1600-1046 BC.

It was a celebration of the autumn full moon and harvest season. Families and friends would come together to (hopefully) celebrate a plentiful crop and enjoy the fruits of their labor under the glowing moon.

In China, locals will often enthusiastically remind you to look at the moon around this time as it’s supposed to be the time when it’s at its biggest and brightest.

Are there any myths or legends relating to this holiday?

While the above origin does make logistical sense, there are also a few legends behind the day. The tale of Hou Yi and Chang’e is the most well-known story.

Hou Yi and Chang’e

This husband and wife duo lived during a time when there were 10 suns in the sky. The overload of suns was causing water to dry up and crops to die, and this was destroying the earth and everyone on it.

A skilled archer, Hou Yi heroically shot down nine of the suns with his bow and arrow in a bid to save humanity.

Here the story becomes a bit unclear with many differing accounts of what happened next, but the version I like best goes like this.

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By means of a thank you for saving the world, the Queen of Heaven gifted Hou Yi an immortality elixir. However, Hou Yi was an old romantic and didn’t want to live forever. He wanted to be by his wife’s side in this life and the next.

Realizing that others may seek to use his gift, not necessarily for good, Hou Yi decided to keep the elixir safe and so he asked Chang’e to guard it.

What could possibly go wrong?

Impressed by his archery skills, people had flocked from all over to learn from Hou Yi. You could say he became somewhat of a celebrity. However, one of his students, Peng Meng, had an ulterior motive.

Hearing that Hou Yi and Chang’e held the key to immortality, Peng Meng stormed their home one day wielding a sword and demanded that the elixir be handed over to him.

It was now Chang’e’s turn to be the hero. Not convinced that the student had good intentions, she drank the potion herself.

Almost immediately, Chang’e felt a lightness about herself and she began to float. She is said to have floated higher and higher until she eventually reached the moon where she was now destined to spend eternity.

I guess nobody had really outlined the terms and conditions of immortality!

What happened next?

When Hou Yi learned of his wife’s sacrifice, he was heartbroken.

He screamed his wife’s name over and over searching for some sign of her. As he sadly looked up at the night sky defeated and unsure of what to do next, he suddenly noticed that the moon was much brighter than normal.

Looking closely and carefully he could see a familiar figure on the moon – his wife looking over him.

Full moon

The spirit of Chang’e ended up on the moon. Image by a2004b12c17 on Pixabay.

Hou Yi is said to have then set up an altar with Chang’e’s favorite snacks and fruit in honor of her time on earth.

Now, every mid-autumn, people across China set up similar altars with their own offerings for Chang’e while remembering the brave sacrifice she made.

So, what exactly is a mooncake and why do Chinese eat them?

Mooncakes are a pastry-type creation.

Generally, they’re round in shape and are about the size of your palm. On the top they have beautifully intricate designs. They’re meant to represent the shape and beauty of the moon itself.

Inside, mooncakes are traditionally filled with red bean paste, lotus seed paste or salted duck egg yolk. These fillings can be a bit of an acquired taste, but overall mooncakes have the salty-sweet ratio nailed down.

Nowadays, you can get all sorts of uniquely designed mooncakes along with some creative, non-traditional fillings.

Mooncake for Mid-Autumn Festival

Mooncakes are often decorated with Chinese characters. Image by Cedric Yong on Pixabay.

I recently saw a chocolate hazelnut coffee mooncake that I will most definitely be trying in the near future! I recall enjoying a strawberry flavored one a few years ago too.

While they are delicious, they are generally quite unhealthy. Mooncakes can contain just as many calories as a burger! For this reason, they’re often cut up into smaller portions and shared among friends and families.

The shareable nature of this snack also adds to the harmony of spending time with loved ones. In China, they say that a family with mooncakes is a happy one.

Mooncakes can also be very expensive. So, don’t feel offended if you’re only offered a small piece to try. After all, it’s important to watch your waistline and not break the bank.

Are there any other traditional Mid-Autumn dishes?

Pomelos, a citrus fruit that I’d honestly never heard of until moving to China, are very popular during this time. This is because they’re harvested in autumn.

They’re quite similar in taste to grapefruit, but a little less bitter.

Pomelo

Pomelos are eaten during the festival. Image by 海峰 陆 on Pixabay.

The Chinese word for pomelo (yòuzi) sounds like a Chinese phrase which means bless and protect the children. Therefore, this fruit is a nice way for families to show their care for younger members while they are all spending time together.

Some families may enjoy duck during Mid-Autumn Festival.

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This has origins in another ancient tale about overthrowing an evil leader. Apparently, his name sounded similar to the local word for ‘duck’.

This is why eating duck is symbolic of overcoming oppression.

Nuts and other fruits or vegetables which are harvested around this time are also enjoyed in a nice nod to the traditional roots of this celebration.

Are there any special greetings for Mid-Autumn Festival?

There are three mains ways to wish someone well during Mid-Autumn Festival:

  • Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! – zhōng qiū jié kuài lè – 中秋节快乐!
  • Happy Moon Festival! – yuè liàng jié kuài lè – 月亮节快乐!
  • Happy Mooncake Festival! – yuè bǐng jié kuài lè – 月饼节快乐!

There are more phrases for different situations but these three should be enough for you to get by without seeming culturally unaware.

Is Mid-Autumn Festival a public holiday?

You do get time off work for this public holiday, usually two or three consecutive days.

However, this may include part of your weekend and employees will generally have to work an extra day at some point around the holiday to make up for the time off work. This is most likely a Saturday or Sunday just before or after the holiday.

In 2020, the holiday fell around the same time as National Day, so workers ended up getting a whole eight days off work! You can read more about national holidays and time off in China here.

Is this a good time to travel?

Yes and no.

Yes, in the sense that a long weekend off from work or school makes it possible for you travel a little further afield than you could over a regular two-day weekend.

No, in the sense that it will be incredibly busy. Remember, family reunions are a key element to Mid-Autumn Festival and so people travel all over China to see loved ones.

Busy train station China holiday period

China’s train stations are notoriously busy during holidays. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Given the relatively short length of this holiday and the large population trying to get around, you may find it to be a bit chaotic to travel around this holiday.

Also keep in mind that a lot of Chinese workers can only travel during public holidays. This means that tourist attractions and popular public spaces will be packed.

I once heard a local Chinese friend describe the beach as ‘human soup’ over a long weekend. From my own experience, theme parks will have long lines for rides and entry tickets for some attractions may sell out early in the day.

Psst! One quick travel tip

If you’re planning a trip to China, don’t forget the internet is censored there.

So, when using Wi-Fi you won’t have access to your favorite sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail, Google and heaps more, unless you get a VPN before you go.

You can find out more about China VPN here.

Key takeaway about Mid-Autumn Festival

Personally, I think this is a really lovely festival.

It’s basically all about spending time with loved ones and enjoying plenty of delicious food. And, people buy mooncakes for each other to help celebrate the holiday.

Add in the romantic legend behind its origins and… what’s not to love?

Do you have any questions about Mid-Autumn festival in China? Please let me know in the comments below. You might also enjoy reading the dramatic story behind Dragon Boat Festival.

Main image credit: Jason Goh on Pixabay.