Today is Mid-Autumn festival in China, the fall holiday that celebrates the moon at its roundest and marks the end of the harvest season. It’s the cultural equivalent to the Celtic celebration of All Hallow’s Eve, but instead of being terrified by ghouls and other things that go ‘boo!’ in the night, the Chinese eat cake and light things on fire. It’s a pretty great holiday.
This festival, like most things in China, revolves around the lunar calendar. Because of this, its date changes but usually falls somewhere between mid-September to mid-October. During the year that I lived in China the hardest thing for me to comprehend, and to adjust to, was the lunar calendar and its effects on my own personal sense of time. It felt like a continual exercise in time philosophy. It was the oddest thing to ask about someone’s birthday and never receive an actual response, mainly because so many people in my province still calculated their age based on the lunar calendar. I also had to calculate in the Chinese belief that you are one-year-old at birth. So for Western standards, you always have to subtract a year to arrive at the person’s age. Anyway!
The main activities for Mid-Autumn Festival are lighting lanterns, usually round shaped or fashioned after dragons, and eating mooncake. A lot of mooncake.
These cakes are densely sweet and made of lotus or red bean paste. The paste is encased in a sliver of slick Chinese pastry dough and baked so it’s almost translucent, like a browned dumpling wrapper. The inner paste sometimes carries chunks of candied apple, dates and or even dehydrated egg yolks (in their entirety!). But no matter what is added, it must be round in honor of the moon. If you’re lucky and try one that’s the simplest of all – just the bean paste – the taste is naturally sweet but not cloying. It has a very subtle nuttiness that tastes almost like browned butter.
Mooncakes are packaged in fancy, shiny tin boxes and given as gifts. When I was teaching in Kaifeng, I received almost twenty boxes of mooncakes from students and had no idea what to do with the abundance of these dense Asian pastries. Each cake is heavy, both in weight and caloric value. Despite its small size, each cake carries between 800 – 1200 calories. Because of this, you slice each pastry into hefty chunks, sharing with family members underneath the light of the moon and festive lanterns. Or in my case, you share with a group of Chinese college students at a barbeque, watching them slip into deep intoxication from 2.5% beer until they inevitably burst into Backstreet Boys songs.
Because there is a tradition to give these oily cakes in abundance, they feel very similar to Christmastime fruitcakes in the Anglophone world. You give and get, often ending up with more than you can reasonably (or want to) consume. This tradition of giving has also transformed the mooncakes into a symbol of status as China’s prosperity increases. What was once a humble holiday cake now comes equipped with telltale signs of income brackets. This is the result of mooncake designers trying their hand at fashioning haute-couture pastries, using unconventional, or highly Western, methods to make the mooncake dough or filling. Sometimes they also construct tin boxes embellished with jewels or even gold.
Luckily, I was spared most of the mooncake insanity while living in my humble town in Central China. I was surrounded mainly by students and shopkeepers so most of the gifted mooncakes were carried in simple, cardboard boxes. It made the whole festival seem accessible during a time when all of the unknowns in China’s culture still overwhelmed me. Looking back, I remember the evening celebration as being fun and silly, although grown men singing Backstreet Boys would do that. Yet it was one of the first nights where it felt like I was beginning to understand Chinese culture. Because of this, it always makes me happy when I see reminders of Mid-Autumn Festival, despite the fact that it means summer is officially over, whether you live in the Eastern or Western hemisphere.
Happy Mooncake Day everyone!