Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival with Mooncakes and More

An Asian woman smiles at the red lanterns around her

Who lives on the moon with a jade rabbit? What is a mooncake? How do you “fight the tiger”? To find answers to these questions, look no further than the Mid-Autumn Festival, a popular celebration in Chinese culture. Also known as the Mooncake Festival or Moon Festival, it’s a time of games, gratitude, and gathering with family and friends.

The Mid-Autumn Festival takes place each year during harvest time on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, when the moon is said to be the brightest and most beautiful. On the Gregorian calendar, the festival may fall anytime between mid-September and early October. In 2022, the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival falls on Saturday, September 10.

How the Festival Started

A Chinese legend explains the beginnings of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Long ago, the sky held 10 suns which were scorching the earth. A brave and noble archer named Hou Yi saved his people by shooting down 9 of the 10 suns. As a reward, he was given an elixir that would make him immortal.

However, Yi did not want to leave his beloved wife, Chang’e, so he gave her the elixir for safekeeping. But Yi’s jealous apprentice, Peng Meng, learned of the elixir. He waited until Yi was away on a hunting trip, then tried to force Chang’e to give him the elixir. Chang’e refused and, desperate to keep the elixir away from Peng Meng, drank it herself.

Artistic drawing of Chang'e and the Chinese legend

Now immortal, Chang’e began to rise in the sky. She wanted to stay as close as possible to her husband, so she made her new home on the moon with her pet, the jade rabbit. When Yi returned home and discovered what had happened, he was heartbroken. He went outside where he could see the moon and offered the fruits and cakes that Chang’e loved to her. Others learned what had happened and began making offerings to Chang’e as well.

From those mythological beginnings, the Mid-Autumn Festival grew over the years to become the important celebration it is today.

It Wouldn’t Be the Same without Mooncakes

Mooncakes—baked treats that are round like a full moon—have become synonymous with the Mooncake Festival. The treats consist of a thick outer pastry shell with a filling often made of red bean paste or lotus seed paste. The pastry shell is traditionally decorated with Chinese characters for longevity or harmony, along with images of Chang’e and her jade rabbit.

A little Asian girl smiles while holding out a mooncake

Another legend gives mooncakes added significance. According to the legend, during the Yuan dynasty, Han revolutionaries sent secret messages to each other inside mooncakes, aiding in their attempt to break free of Mongolian rule.

Lanterns and Riddles

Lanterns are also closely associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival. Besides lighting the air with beautiful shapes and colors, lanterns often have riddles written on them or attached to them. See if you can solve these riddles from Chinlingo:

  • What belongs to you, but others use it more than you do?
  • It works hard all its life, counting numbers day and night, but never gets past 12. What is it?
  • They look like twin brothers, both sturdy and tall. They work together and go everywhere together, but they only go near solid food and do not care for soup. Who are they?
  • I can follow you for thousands of miles and not miss home. I do not fear cold or fire, and I desire neither food nor drink, but I disappear when the sun sets behind the western mountains. Who am I?

(Find the answers here.)

Some riddles can be very difficult. When you try to solve one, you are said to be “fighting the tiger.”

Celebrate!

Would you like to hold your own Mid-Autumn Festival? Try making your own mooncakes and sharing them with friends or family. You could even send secret messages with them.

Three women share mooncakes

Making simple paper lanterns is a fun activity for all ages. Invite family and friends to find riddles and attach them to the lanterns.

When you gather together to celebrate, spend some time looking at the beauty of the full moon in the night sky. Share the legend of Chang’e. Think about and share the things you’re grateful for. Have fun solving the riddles on the lanterns. Most of all, enjoy the time together with friends and family as you celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Your Journey of Discovery

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a great time to share traditions with your family or to discover your Chinese heritage. Below are some great resources for learning about Chinese ancestors and connecting to your family. Start your journey of discovery today!

    Tags
    About the Author
    Kathryn is a writer, teacher, and family history enthusiast. Her specialty is mentoring new family historians and helping them find success—and maybe even avoid some of the mistakes she's made. She believes that with the right guidance, everyone can learn to love and do family history.