September 30, 2012, is the Mid-Autumn Festival in the Chinese lunar calendar. On this day, families gather together for a traditional autumn harvest festival. Tonight there is a full moon, and in traditional families, the eldest women of the family will lead all the other women in worship to the moon goddess. No men are allowed in this part of the ceremony. Afterwards, everyone in the family gathers together to eat moon cakes, Chinese grapefruit, and other autumn delicacies. The largest moon cake is supposed to be cut into as many pieces as there are family members present, and each person eats a piece. This symbolizes that the family is united. Mid-Autumn Festival is a national holiday in mainland China and Taiwan. People rush home to gather with their families to eat moon cake and watch the full harvest moon.
When Chinese people look at the moon, they do not see a man in the moon. They sometimes see a jade rabbit, but most often they see Chang-e, the lady in the moon. Here is the legend of Chang-e in Chinese from my old Chinese text book Chinese Customs and Traditions:
Here is my translation of the legend:
In China, they have a legend about the moon: In ancient times, there was a king named Hou-Yi. He was cruel and violent, and he lived a life of luxury and excess. He was not at all sympathetic to the sufferings of his people. A goddess gave him a magic elixir that would make him immortal. Hou-Yi was quite happy about it, but when the populace heard the news, they were very disappointed because when a despot lives forever, the people will never see good times again. Hou-Yi’s concubine, Chang-e, was a kind person. She rejected his tyrannical rule and worked to free the populace by secretly taking Hou-Yi’s magic elixir. As soon as she had swallowed the elixir, her body became light as a bird, and she inadvertently flew up to the palace on the moon where she now lives eternally. When we look at the moon on the Mid-Autumn Festival, it seems that we can see a classical Chinese beauty with flowing sleeves, and that is Chang-e.
Another custom during the time before and after the Mid-Autumn Festival is giving gift boxes of moon cakes to relatives, friends, and people to whom you owe favors. You can buy traditional moon cakes at the 99 Ranch Market in California and Washington State. I am sure they are to be found in other Asian markets around the world. The cakes are filled with bean paste or lotus seed paste or walnut paste. They often have a salted egg yolk in the middle to represent the moon. If you have never tried one, I highly recommend the experience; although for some, it is an acquired taste.