We spent this past week in China and caught the beginning of the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations. This is the second largest Chinese holiday and you’ll find decorations and traditional foods everywhere if you’re in the country, especially round red lanterns strung up in the trees and very dense cakes called moon cakes.
This time marks the fall harvest and, like many cultures around the world, this is a time for expressing gratitude and enjoying time with family.
This festival has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years, with its first written records coming from the Shang dynasty. It is always celebrated during the full moon of the 8th month of the lunar calendar.
In ancient times, the Mid-Autumn Festival also honored the gods or mythological figures honored in each region, such as gods of the moon, the local mountains or the great dragon who was believed to control the weather – therefore creating a bountiful harvest season.
A Mid-Autumn Festival Story
My favorite parts of any holiday are the myths and stories behind them.
In China, where stories were told orally for generations, the myths tend to vary per region. Here is one version:
It was believed in ancient days that there were once 10 suns that took turns lighting the sky. As long as only one sun rose at a time, Earth was safe and warm.
But one year, all 10 suns rose at once, which was understandably a disaster.
A very talented archer, Hou Yi, saved all of humanity was shooting down 9 suns, leaving us with only the one we have today.
In reward for his quick thinking, Hou Yi was given an elixir that would grant him immortality.
But Hou Yi loved his wife very much, and he did not want immortality if it meant she would eventually die and he’d have the rest of eternity without her.
A student of Hou Yi knew about this elixir and wanted it for himself. One night, when he knew Hou Yi was away, he broke into his house to steal the vial.
Hou Yi’s wife tried to fight him off, but in the end she took the elixir herself to keep it from the disloyal student.
She could no longer live among mortals and was carried up into the heavens. Hoping to stay as close to Hou Yi as possible, she chose the moon as her new home.
After Hou Yi discovered what had happened, he would often spend time looking at the moon and thinking of his wife. During the full moon, he’d leave out her favorite foods and drinks in honor of her. Others felt compassion for him, and began the same practices, which spread throughout the country.
An Alternative Version
The first story was very sweet, but not all depict Hou Yi in the same positive light.
Another version says he was crowned king after shooting down the nine suns, and later given the immortality elixir.
Unfortunately, he was a prideful and cruel king, and his wife knew he should never be made immortal. To protect the country, she took the elixir to keep it from him.
She flew to the moon, and the mad king died of anger. The people celebrate the wife and the moon as their heroine.
How to celebrate:
– Share a mooncake with family or friends. This symbolizes unity and a strong bond between loved ones.
– Have a glass of cassia wine. It is the traditional drink, and a favorite of the archer’s wife.
– Watch a dragon dance. These are common performances around China during this time of year.
– Pray for love. Whether you are hoping to begin a new relationship or preserve an existing one, the time is right for this kind of intention.
I’ve experienced two Mid-Autumn Festivals in China now. Have you ever been? Which story do you prefer – the romantic one or the one with a darker twist?
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