Today is Mid Autumn Festival in Hong Kong. I miss it. Mid Autumn Festival is the Chinese version of Thanksgiving.
Originally the festival marked the end of the rice harvest and families went to the mountains to have picnics. Today it celebrates the beauty of the autumn moon and is also called the Lunar Holiday. In Hong Kong families and friends gather in parks or go down to the ocean after dark. They carry lanterns or glow sticks. They light candles and spread out blankets for picnics.
The food associated with Mid Autumn Festival is mooncakes and the school I taught at in Hong Kong distributed them to all the students’ families along with a request for donations to our school. Mooncakes are sold everywhere during Mid Autumn season and in some shops all year round. I received dozens as gifts from my students. There are many different kinds. Traditional ones are filled with egg yolk, lotus seed paste and coconut. Some have a red bean filling. They are very rich. I was told one mooncake has the same number of calories as five bowls of rice. I tried several different kinds but admit they weren’t my favorite. I think it was around 2007 when I noticed how popular icecream mooncakes were becoming. Hagen Daz made them and during Mid Autumn Festival week there would be huge line-ups at their stores.
Mooncakes have a historical significance. Apparently when China was under Mongol rule an army commander sent the citizens of several towns mooncakes the evening before the festival. Tucked inside them were notes telling the people to rise up at midnight and kill the Mongols. The surprise attack was a success and with the help of the rebel army the Mongols were chased out of the country.
I’ll never forget my first Mid Autumn Festival in Hong Kong.
The night before the Mid Autumn Festival our doorbell rang at 10:00. There at the door stood one of my students and his father. They brought us a huge basket of fruit and stayed to visit for about half an hour.
For our first Mid Autumn Festival evening a teacher from our school invited us to his home near the Hong Kong harbor. Upon our arrival we were warmly welcomed by the friends and family who had gathered together to celebrate. We had a potluck supper and then headed down to the beach. Our hosts provided us each with a candle-lit paper lantern to carry. The children were waving light sticks and had on phosphorescent necklaces and bracelets. Hundreds of families were heading down to the water carrying lanterns. Even the dogs we saw were wearing “glow in the dark” collars. At the beach, we picked a spot to sit down and put dozens of small red candles in the sand. We lit them and sat around our burning circle of light visiting and singing. The moon was gorgeous and the beach was full of families, each with their own little candle fire enjoying the lunar magic and one another’s company. Apparently some would stay near the water for most of the night. We left around eleven thirty.
When we arrived home the children in our apartment block were still outside enjoying a penny carnival the building management had set up in the courtyard. The gates and walls were decorated with lights. Lanterns were strung up everywhere. We heard the kids talking and laughing long after we went to bed.
In subsequent years we continued to celebrate with friends. Here we are in Ma On Shan Park with colleagues on Mid Autumn Festival night.
This year I’m hosting my extended family for a Thanksgiving meal a week before Canadian Thanksgiving, because of family travel plans, so we will be celebrating exactly on the Mid Autumn Festival Day. We’ll have our own little Chinese Thanksgiving here in Winnipeg.