Underneath the Harvest Moon
If you were in Guangzhou, you’d call it “Jūng-chāu Jit.” In Korea, “Chuseok.” In Vietnam, “Tết Trung Thu.” And in Singapore, where I just finished celebrating it with new friends from work, it’s simply called “The Lantern Festival,” because of all the . . . well, all the festive lanterns they hang out at night, I suppose. (I was too busy stuffing myself with chili crab to ask, to tell you the truth.) In English, we just call it the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival. And with all the scrumptious (and yes, round) foods that are served this time of year, I call it “delicious.” And you will too.
So what is the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival all about? It’s held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Han calendar — the night of a full moon that falls near the Autumnal Equinox. And it’s pretty much a celebration of the harvest, although many moons ago (sorry, couldn’t help it) it was a fertility festival: the sun being seen as male and the moon as female, and when the woman becomes pregnant, she becomes “round,” like the full moon. (Don’t get on me about it – I’m just the messenger here!) But today, it’s just considered a time of thanksgiving for the harvest’s bounty, of gathering together with friends and family, and of praying for good fortune (and babies!) in the future.
In any case, it’s a huge holiday with serious significance all over Asia – second in importance only to the New Year celebration. The Mid-Autumn Festival is such a mega-holiday in Shanghai that it was nearly impossible to find hotels, transportation, or even dinner reservations when I was there! Though it’s still busy, I found Singapore less dense and more manageable. (And cleaner, of course!) Mooncakes are ubiquitous in hotels, restaurants, malls, everywhere.
And what’s a mooncake, you ask? We were introduced to them in Guangzhou, when we were there adopting Yao Yao. It’s a round pastry of sorts with a dense filling of red bean paste or lotus paste, but it’s evolving to include sweeter fillings such as ice cream. (Truth be told, I never saw anything but traditional mooncakes when I was there.) I hear the outer pastry is made with lard and duck-egg yolks. That didn’t deter me in the least. To say I got used to them would be an understatement – they really do grow on you.
In addition to mooncakes, “round” foods such as pumpkins and crabs are served, and every day in Singapore I thanked the moon goddess for the bounty of this year’s crab harvest! Hairy crabs are big on the menu all over Singapore this time of year, and who amongst us doesn’t love fiery, saucy, messy, delicious chili crab? Duck and taro are seen as good luck and help with the old yin and yang as well.
But it’s not all about good food, although families were celebrating all over Singapore with large festive meals. Everyone gathers where they can see the moon – on rooftops, on hilltops, even on boats. After dinner you can see people doing the “moonwalk” – not the Michael Jackson move, but groups of people just strolling around the harbor looking at the moon. (Candidly, if I lived in Singapore, I think I might do that more than once a year.) People honor the moon by placing mooncakes, candles, incense, and bowls of fruit, and we saw them hanging lanterns in the trees or on rooftops. Finally, there’s a beautiful, light-filled ceremony at the local Buddhist temple.
Wherever you are – from Hong Kong to Vietnam to Singapore – the Moon Festival takes on a distinct local flavor, but the sentiment is the same: a deep and abiding respect for the harvest and the family. And that’s not so foreign, is it?