Once upon a time the world was surrounded by ten suns. These ten suns burned brightly, so bright that the crops burned. Houyi, an expert archer, saw the suffering these suns were creating and shot down nine of them. The people cheered and celebrated him. And with his beautiful wife, Chang’e, he lived happily. His fame gained him many students who wanted to learn the art of archery. One day, as Houyi was traveling home, the Emperor gave him two pills that would make the eater immortal. But he warned Houyi that he should not be hasty about eating the pill. So Houyi and Chang’e decided to wait until the New Year, in the meantime Chang’e would hide the pills in her jewelry box. But Peng, one of Houyi’s top apprentices, learned of their secret. When all the others went out for the hunt on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, he stayed back because he “felt sick.” As soon as the rest of the apprentices had climbed the mountain with Houyi, he entered the house and tried to force Chang’e to give him the pills. But she refused and ate them instead. Suddenly she started to fly. She didn’t want to disappear though and so she landed on the moon. When Houyi returned from the hunt, he was furious and tried his hardest to reach the moon but never could. And on this day, the moon shines its brightest and most beautiful.
There are, of course, many variations of the legend. Some have Houyi as a good man. Others have Peng murdering Houyi. In some stories, Houyi is an evil emperor and Chang’e takes away his chance to become immortal to spare the people of his kingdom from being ruled by an evil despot. But all the legends agree, there is a pill/elixir that Chang’e takes to get to the moon. There is a man, Houyi, that she is married to who shoots down 9 of the 10 suns.
Every year on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, there is a Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. This year that falls on September 11. It is celebrated in a variety of countries, but I only know of the Chinese/Taiwanese ways. In Chinese tradition, family and friends gather under the beautiful moon for good company and food. The traditional food is, of course, the moon cake. And since China has such a long history, many of the traditions and the foods involved have legends about them as well.
When China was ruled by Mongolians, the Yuan dynasty, people decided to overthrow the emperor and used the moon cakes to send messages about the plan of attack. And so, moon cakes are eaten to commemorate the day of their successful rebellion. The next dynasty to be formed was the Ming dynasty.
Traditionally, beautiful lanterns are lit and hung in high places. Pomelo is another food traditionally eaten, though I’ve never tried it so I suppose that’s something I have yet to do. Many Chinatowns have fantastic lantern festivals. And by lanterns I mean floats. Even if your local Chinatown doesn’t have such elaborate float-lanterns, there is still probably some sort of festival environment with food and music! My college Chinese group always puts on an event for students to gather together and eat with their friends.
Moon cakes have some form of bean paste surrounded by a thin crust. They come in a variety of flavors these days. The traditional ones are red bean but my personal favorite is lotus seed flavored. Chances are you can find moon cakes with green bean paste or green tea flavored paste on the inside. Some will have pine nuts and others will have a preserved egg yolk in the middle. You should try them all! Though not all in one night as they can be quite sweet. Of course, they also come in a variety of sizes. I’ve seen some that are the size of a lazy susan and others that are about an inch in diameter. There’s so much variety that I’m sure somewhere there’s something to please everyone. Unless you don’t like sugar, then you’ll run into some issues.
Moon cakes can be found well in advance of the actual holiday, of course. So when August rolls around next year be sure to get your moon cakes so you can celebrate on Sept 29th!