The story behind this colourful East-Asian celebration
By Lena Sharp
Growing up in Singapore, I’ve always been fascinated by the many colourful festivals celebrated in that tiny, yet culturally rich South-East Asian island all year round – one of the loveliest being the Mid-Autumn Festival.
During my short trip to Singapore this autumn, I was fortunate to have caught glimpses of streets decked out in glowing lanterns and lantern-walking events. I even shared a box of beautifully packaged mooncakes with a gathering of friends.
But what exactly is the Mid-Autumn Festival? Where did it originate? And what do these colourful lanterns and mooncakes have to do with it? It all began in ancient China, as a festival of thanksgiving to the gods during harvest time in the mid-autumn, when the moon was at its brightest.
The story has evolved since. Several lunar legends surround this thanksgiving celebration, one of the most notable being that of the legendary Chang Er, the wife of an evil king who saved her people from his tyranny in an act of bravery during this season.
In so doing, Chang Er died and ascended to the moon – and has since been worshipped as the Moon Goddess. Hence the connection between the Mid-Autumn Festival and all things lunar – from the ‘moon-like’ glow of lanterns at night, to the popular celebration of mooncakes.
These round ‘moon-like’ cakes consist of a sweet lotus filling within a pastry case. Modern variants come in the form of ‘snow skin’ cases with a variety of fillings – from chocolate to champagne truffle – to suit the modern palate.
According to Chinese folklore, mooncakes were first created during a Mid-Autumn Festival at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1280 – 1368 BC) to help free China from Mongol rule. The Chinese organised an uprising by sending messages hidden in mooncakes to rebel forces who then overthrew the Mongols.
Mooncakes have grown in popularity in modern times to become the highlight of this ‘magical’ festival. The modern-day celebration is less bound up in folklore and superstition. Instead, it is a celebration of friendships and family reunions – centred around this delectable cake symbolising unity and completeness.