The moon plays a major role in many cultures, it can even decide when friends and family should come together for celebrations. The mid-autumn festival marks an important time with multiple fascinating backstories.
The Moon Festival, more commonly known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, falls around the end of September or beginning of October every year. The Chinese have developed a special bond with the moon. Its gentle, soft glow is not only depicted in numerous poems and folklore throughout history but also has connections with two of the most important traditional festivals: Mid-Autumn and Lantern Festivals.
There’s no exact origin to the Mid-Autumn Festival, but experts boil it down to two believable sources: the harvest celebration and moon worshipping.
Fall is a fruitful season for crops in China. Hence, people like to gather with family members to celebrate during the festival. Moon worshipping has been an ancient and common custom in autumn, dating back thousands of years. As time went by, people glued the moon, fall harvest and family reunions together into one—the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The full moon occurs roughly every 29 days, so why is the moon only celebrated once in the 12 months of the Chinese calendar? It is said that this is when the moon looks the fullest and is at its roundest and brightest of the year. Perhaps the crisp fall air, with reduced moister in the sky makes the moon look cleaner and brighter. Perhaps it’s because it’s the time for harvest and reunion—tuanyuan in Chinese.
It’s widely known that the Mid-Autumn Day isn’t the roundest and brightest day of the moon, it can be the day after or even two days after. I’m not going to bore you with scientific facts about the different date each month the full moon occurs, but according to data from 1961 to 2010, there was a 48 percent chance that the full moon happened on the day after Mid-autumn Day, a 38 percent chance on the same day and a 12 percent chance two days after.
Speaking of the moon in China, you have probably heard of the goddess of immortality, Chang’e, and her pet, Jade Rabbit, whom a series of Chinese lunar rovers were named after. According to the myth, there is a palace on the moon where Chang’e and her faithful pet live alone. There are various versions of how they ended up on the moon, but I’m especially fond of the one in which Jade Rabbit takes on the role of creating elixirs. This myth stems from the slight markings on the full moon that look like a rabbit holding a pestle for making the elixir of life.
Every Chinese person learned to recite a few moon poems at school that were written by famous poets such as Li Bai and Su Shi. Many of them express the same sentiment—homesickness. On this special day when your family is sitting around the table enjoying mooncakes, what can you do when thoughts of not being together creep in? Only the moon which you and your family are both gazing at could perhaps alleviate the unbearable sorrow in your chest.
Here’s the excerpt from my favorite poem, May Everyone Be Accompanied By the Ones They Care About During Mid-Autumn Festival, by Su Shi:
The moon should know no sadness. Why, then, is she always full when dear ones are parted? As men’s grief and joy, parting and union, So, the moon is bright or dim, waxes and wanes, Always some flaw, and so it has been since of old.