It was so dark that I could barely see to the end of the driveway. The porch lights illuminated the chirping crickets and fireflies fluttering around. Eight-year-old me had no idea why my mom had interrupted my cartoons and dragged me and my brother outside in the middle of the night. My dad tried to light some candles but the frigid autumn wind kept blowing the flame out. When he finally managed to light them, we put them inside a bright red whale and butterfly lantern that dangled on a long plastic stick. I quickly forgot about how low the temperature outside had dropped as I ran around the driveway with the shining lantern and playing with sparklers. I still remember my mom watching me nervously, afraid I would fall and somehow catch on fire — which, knowing my klutziness, was, and still is, a likely possibility. At the time, I assumed that we were playing outside because it was Halloween or someone’s birthday, but as I know now, it was actually the Mid-Autumn Festival.
This celebration falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar (Sept. 21 this year) and is also known as the Moon(cake) Festival or Lantern Festival. It is celebrated in Northeast Asian countries like China and South Korea as well as Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore, where my parents are from. I have heard this day be referred to as “Chinese Thanksgiving,” but in reality, the two holidays have little in common aside from the time of year it is celebrated and family reunions.
There are many versions of the story behind this day, but the common retelling I learned is that the Earth was being scorched by 10 suns and no vegetation could grow. An archer named Hou Yi saved everyone by shooting down nine of the suns with a bow and arrow and was rewarded with the elixir of immortality. However, he didn’t want to live forever without his wife Chang E and gave the elixir to her for safekeeping. Hou Yi earned many followers for his bravery, but one of them found out about the elixir and attempted to steal it. Instead of letting him take it, Chang E drank the elixir herself and flew to the moon, the closest place to Earth in heaven. Hoping to someday reunite, he would present the moon with mooncakes every anniversary of that day. It is said that the full moon shines the brightest on this day.
Traditional mooncakes are typically round and golden-brown with ornate patterns stamped on top of them. During the Ming Dynasty in China, secret messages were hidden in mooncakes and used to pass information between resistance forces during an uprising against the royal court. Today, these pastries are typically filled with dried fruit, nuts, sweet red bean paste, white lotus paste or my favorite, green tea paste. Since the mooncakes tend to look identical from the outside (much to everyone’s annoyance), I remember sneakily taking bites out of several ones trying to find those filled with green tea paste and white lotus paste.
Some mooncakes even have savory fillings such as Chinese sausage or radish. Other unique flavors I have come across include peanut butter, chocolate, ice cream and durian. When I was younger, I remember being offered ones filled with a salted egg yolk. To this day, I’m still not on board with this traditional flavor and will eat around the yolk when given one, but needless to say, this filling remains one of the most iconic today.
Water caltrops, known as “lihng gok” in Chinese, are also associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival. These bizarre-looking black nuts are boiled to become soft and reveal a white, slightly sweet nutty interior when peeled. This snack resembles a bat, which is considered auspicious because the Chinese character for the word “bat” is a homonym for the character of the word “prosperity.”
My family celebrates this day by enjoying a special dinner together. Every year, my mom wants family pictures with all the food and my dad repeatedly asks, “Can we eat yet?” My brother and I sneak food into our mouths when my mom isn’t looking. And there’s nothing quite like the coziness you get from being surrounded by steaming dishes when the weather is chilly outside. As far as I know, there is no one specific food associated with this meal like we would usually associate turkey with Thanksgiving. The main purpose is to reunite and enjoy each other’s company. My family in Malaysia will bring a table outside and put joss sticks and candles on it and pray to the moon. Neighbors will chat, enjoy mooncakes, drink tea and gaze at the moon together. Children will play with sparklers and bright red lanterns in animal shapes after it gets dark. My mom says that she remembers bringing in toilet paper rolls for arts and crafts time in school to make their own lanterns when she was growing up. People will barely be able to make each other out in the faint moonlight, but you can hear laughter and chatter for miles.
Now that I’m older and my mom is excited for grandkids, she has reminded me of the tradition for unmarried people to pray to Yue Xia Lao Ren (often shortened to Yue Lao), the god of love and marriage in Chinese mythology. It is believed that he binds two people together with a red string. Since his name translates to “old man under the moon,” people looking for love will pray to him on the day of the Lantern Festival. In other words, if you see a strange girl holding a red string and looking at the moon somewhere on Main Street sometime this week, it’s me.
Growing up, I never understood why my mom spent the whole day cooking for our “zung cau jit” (“Mid-Autumn Festival” in Cantonese) dinner or why she insisted on celebrating a holiday that none of my other friends had ever heard of. She would drag the family on a 40-minute drive to the closest Chinese grocery store on a Sunday morning instead of letting my brother and me sleep in because the “ethnic aisle” at Meijer just didn’t cut it. And when we visit Malaysia, she would always dedicate precious luggage space to bringing back mooncakes and fancy plastic lanterns. While this is the first year that I won’t be able to enjoy the special dinner with my family, I’ll be publishing this piece instead to remember our time spent together. Sending a virtual mooncake from my family to yours.
MiC Columnist Victoria Tan can be reached at email@example.com.