Thanksgiving was a holiday I never really paid attention to until I moved to Canada and married a Yukoner. My friends and I always thought it was odd to have Christmas dinner in October and we casually passed it off as an eccentric quirk our North American counterparts adopted across the pond. It was not until I had my first Thanksgiving dinner four years ago that it felt comforting and familiar. It was a gathering of family and friends, celebrating the harvest and reflecting on our blessings. It reminded me exactly of Mid-Autumn Festival.
Mid-Autumn Festival is China’s version of Thanksgiving (or Zhōng qiū jié, as it is pronounced in Mandarin Chinese), which traditionally falls on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, always during the full moon. It became a public holiday in 2008, but has been celebrated for centuries. This year it falls on Oct. 1 and is probably the second most important holiday after Chinese New Year. As the name suggests, its tradition lies in moon worship and celebration of hope, the harvest and its bounties, which started more than 3,000 years ago during the Zhou Dynasty (1045 to 221 BC). The origin of moon worship lies in the legend of the moon goddess Chang’e, who is best known for drinking the elixir of life belonging to her husband, Hou Yi, the legendary archer.
Many years ago there were 10 suns in the sky. The unrelenting rays scorched the earth and made life unbearable for many. The heat made it almost impossible to grow food. Harvests failed year after year. Using his archery skills, Yi shot down nine of those suns, leaving only one. As a reward he was given the elixir of life by Xi Wang Mu; Queen Mother of the West, a goddess of the highest deity who had complete control over life, death and destruction. This elixir was reserved only for those who had reached enlightenment. Yi contemplated what to do with this elixir for a long time. He only had enough for one person, but did not want to leave his beloved wife behind on Earth.
He decided to remain mortal so that he could live the rest of his days with his wife by his side. Yi had an apprentice called Feng Men, who burned with a jealous rage when he found out that his master was given the elixir. Waiting until Yi had left to go hunting, Feng Men broke into his master’s home and demanded Change’e give him the elixir. She ran, drinking down every last drop of the liquid and suddenly started to float up towards the heavens. She was unable to stop and flew towards the moon, to reside there where she could look over her husband. Every year until his death, Yi left out her favourite fruits and foods as a sign of love and respect. Eventually other people began doing the same, believing it would bring good luck and fortune. In darker versions of this legend, Chang’e becomes addicted to the elixir and her pet companion on the moo –a white rabbit–helps make more for her to consume until the end of time.
This legend is still part of Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations. Many families like to go on a long walk after dinner to appreciate the bright full moon. Many children like to make and play with paper lanterns, the light representing the brightness of the moon. The legend is also still represented through food in the form of mooncakes, a round pastry with elegant and intricate patterns on the crust that can be sweet or savoury. Eating, buying and gifting mooncakes is one of the most important customs as part of modern celebrations. They were first made and consumed as part of Mid-Autumn Festival during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368). Today you can find fillings that range from traditional, such as lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk, to modern, including matcha and red bean filling, to more fun fillings, such as ice cream.
In addition to representing the moon and respecting the moon goddess, the roundness of these foods symbolizes reunion, happiness, family and hope. Other popular foods to consume during the festival include pumpkins, pomegranates, and various nuts and seeds. Dumplings, although not associated with Mid-Autumn Festival, will also be eaten, as they are seen as a general celebration food where all the members of the family help to make them. White Rabbit, a popular milk candy, is often given to younger members of the family. I have fond memories of family friends sneakily passing me fistfuls of White Rabbit when my parents were not looking.
Although Thanksgiving and Mid-Autumn Festival originated at opposite ends of the world, with very different cultural practices, it is clear to me that we all hold dear the same sentiments of family, connection, love and hope. Straddling three cultures (Chinese, British and Canadian) makes me realize that we have more commonalities than we do differences, especially when it comes to celebrating things that are precious to us. This Mid-Autumn Festival, you can find me sitting on the shore of a lake, looking up at the moon and thinking of my family, counting my blessings and hoping for a brighter 2021.