My Favorite Childhood Memories of Mid-Autumn Festival
My siblings would gather to hear my father tell the holiday’s folktale — and eat some delicious dishes.
For as a long as I could remember, Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as Mooncake Festival) was one of the holidays my family celebrated with a sense of importance. Mid-Autumn Festival marks the turning of the seasons, from summer to autumn, and everyone harvests their once abundance home gardens to turn over the soil to prepare for the colder months ahead.
I can clearly remember my grandmother carefully growing the large winter melon as if it was a summer water balloon being filled with a strong hose, as if it could pop any second. This melon, along with large pumpkins, were part of our winter forage. We kept a stockpile in our basement where it was cool, and cut wedges off as the winter months progressed. From soups to stews, we’d make any recipe that required a lot of time over the stove and a little protein because it was scarce. This was the most affordable way to feed our family with a tight budget. But as my family prepared the garden, I would be counting down the days to the holiday. I knew my parents would splurge on mooncakes and retell the tragic love folktale to my siblings and me.
Mid-Autumn Festival always corresponded with a full moon. No matter how chilly the night was, we would always set out a table in the backyard filled with delicious dishes so flavorful that they would distract us from the cold air. The savory staples were boiled buffalo nuts and peanuts, ginger scallion dungeness crab stir fry, periwinkles in black bean sauce and crispy stuffed lotus patties — a classic eat-with-your-hands meal. The adults would chat away while sipping on cold beer. It was simply the best. After dining, my siblings would run off to the yard and light candles to place in our paper lanterns. The lanterns are meant to create a path for light and prosperity. It also meant dessert was around the corner, and it was time for the long-awaited folktale!
My mother would always prepare a large thermos filled with hot water and a small teapot filled with tea leaves. She would only fill the teapot enough to pour a handful of small cups. Once the tea was brewed and enjoyed, she would then refill it with additional hot water from the thermos, so the tea was always hot enough. Tea is essential to enjoying mooncakes, another holiday staple, because they’re are rich and can be quite heavy. The most traditional ones are made with a sweetened lotus paste and one salted egg yolk or up to four egg yolks. But as children, we didn’t appreciate the mooncakes as much as the mango pomelo sago, another dessert that represents the changing of the season. Mangoes are on their way out along with summer, and the pomelos are hurrying in. Pomelo is a large citrus fruit that tastes like a blend of grapefruit and lime. It comes into season right around the time of Mid-Autumn Festival and lasts until Lunar New Year. My mother always poured out generous portions for us as the adults enjoyed wedges of mooncake.
As young and old stared into the moon while enjoying their sweet treats, my father would start to tell the story of the Moon Goddess known as Chang Yi. She was married to Hou Yi, who was an archer. With his great skill, he was able to protect the people in his village by shooting down the nine out of ten moons. The villagers were so grateful because they were finally able to live without burning from the heat. A God was so impressed with Hou Yi’s skill, that he gifted him an elixir of immortality. People discovered he had such a powerful gift and wanted to steal it from him. One day when Hou Yi was out, a thief broke into their home and threatened Chang Yi for it. She ingested herself rather than giving it to him. Little did she know, the elixir not only gifted her immortality, but also flight. She drifted into the sky but was heartbroken she would never see her husband again. Chang Yi knew her husband would often admire the moon, so she decided to make the moon her home. This way, they were able to see each other every month during the full moon phase. When Hou Yi returned home and discovered the sacrifice his wife made, he quickly set out mooncakes and fruit in her honor. He would spend all night staring at the moon as she stared back. The villagers would light lanterns to help guide her home.
As my father finished telling us this tale, he would say "If you stare hard enough, you can see that there is an angelic woman sitting in there waiting for beloved." Perhaps it is just a folktale, but it gives us a reason to slow down, and admire the moon while enjoying good food and each other’s company.