Chinese all over the world will celebrate the Mooncake Festival (also known as the Lantern Festival or Mid-Autumn Festival) this Friday, Sept 13, which is the 15th day of the 8th moon of the Chinese Lunar Calendar around the time of the Autumn Equinox.
The day of the festival is not a public holiday but some Chinese schools take a break on that day to allow its students to celebrate with their family members.
Early in the morning, housewives go to a wet market to buy food in preparation for their big family reunion dinner when mooncakes are usually eaten under the big full moon.
When I was a teenager, I lived in a special neighbourhood at Foochow Lane, Sibu where different families rented rooms in a wooden, longhouse-style block. There festivals were welcomed with much excitement and enthusiasm, and the elderly Hainanese ladies always reminded us about the festivals long before they happened.
On the day of the festival, every housewife in the block churned out their best family reunion recipes. As the families were friendly with each other, children like us could pop in and out of the rooms to check on what was being cooked in the kitchen.
If your family is Hainanese, chicken rice is a must during the Mooncake Festival or any other festival for that matter.
I learnt to cook authentic chicken rice from a Hainanese woman born and bred on the island of Hainan. Whenever I want, I can still see her in my mind’s eye busy frying her chicken rice over a wood fire in the kitchen.
Many children looked forward to lighting paper lanterns and playing them with their friends during the festival. The lanterns were always on sale in the shops long before the festival day arrived.
Nowadays, Malaysian children are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing their lanterns. The lanterns come in all shapes and sizes. Instead of lanterns with candles, you can buy those powered by batteries. Some of the lanterns are so beautifully painted that I do not have the heart to light candles in them!
Some Chinese associations organise Mooncake Festival dinners for their members at their premises. After the dinners, all the members and their children and/or grandchildren then go for lantern-strolls around the association buildings.
My 24-year-old niece, Ah Hong, remembers one such lantern-stroll organised by the Kuching Hainan Association with fondness in her heart. She was in kindergarten then and my father, who was in his early 70s, accompanied her on the stroll.
Looking back, it was good of the association to celebrate the Mooncake Festival with its members. It made young children appreciate their Chinese culture and heritage and strengthen their ties with their elders.
In Kuching, the Federation of Chinese Associations of Kuching, Samarahan and Serian Divisions also held a parent-child lantern colouring and decorating contest recently to mark the Mooncake Festival. The contest was aimed at promoting the festival and letting parents share their knowledge of Chinese culture with the younger generation.
In keeping with the season, some commercial centres, like Plaza Merdeka Shopping Mall, organise lantern-making competitions.
The Mooncake Festival is a traditional celebration of not just the Han Chinese, but also minority ethnic groups in China.
The festival is believed to have originated from the ancient ceremony of offering sacrifices to the Moon Goddess for the year-end harvest.
The custom of worshipping the moon dates back to the Xia and Shang Dynasties of China (2000 BC-1066 BC). During the Zhou Dynasty (1066 BC-221 BC), villagers celebrated in preparation for the arrival of winter and to celebrate the beauty of the new moon. In subsequent dynasties, baked mooncakes were presented to relatives as gifts during family reunions.
The Mooncake Festival has been celebrated on a large scale since the Han Chinese overthrew their Mongolian rulers during the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368 AD) in China.
As the Mid-Autumn Festival drew near, the rebel leaders ordered mooncakes to be baked and distributed to the villages. In the cakes were messages of the outline of their attack.
On the festival night, the rebels successfully overthrew the government with the help of local villagers and later established the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD).
As you eat your mooncakes this Friday, remember this story. It is part of the real history of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Until next week, Happy Mooncake Festival to all Chinese readers!