Mid-Autumn Festival Across Asia

Mid-Autumn Festival mooncake
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The Mid-Autumn Festival is a major holiday that takes place across East and Southeast Asia every fall. It’s a celebration of the autumn harvest and a time for families to gather and spend time together. It’s celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, so it usually falls somewhere between mid-September and early October on the Gregorian calendar.

Some version of a Mid-Autumn Festival is observed in by those in Cambodia, mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, as well as people of Chinese heritage in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. It’s called various names in different countries, such as Chuseok in Korea, Tsukimi in Japan, Tết Trung Thu in Vietnam, and Bon Om Touk in Cambodia (though this festival doesn’t always line up with the Mid-Autumn Festival in other Asian countries).

This holiday is also called the Moon Festival (or even Mooncake Festival) due to its associations with the moon. It’s celebrated around the time of the full moon; this particular full moon is said to be the biggest and brightest of the year.

This post will give a brief overview of the Mid-Autumn Festival across Asia, including significant folktales and food, as well as a highlight of traditions of this holiday in South Korea.

The Rabbit on the Moon

Multiple Asian cultures have legends for the Mid-Autumn Festival regarding a rabbit and the moon. Specifically, on the face of the full moon, you can see a rabbit pounding rice cakes in a mortar.

Countries with this kind of folktale include China, Korea, Cambodia, Japan, and Vietnam. The exact story and way the rabbit got to the moon varies, but often has Buddhist origins.

In areas that celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, you can often see decorations, merchandise, and so on for the holiday depicting a rabbit with full moons. For example, I bought some cute bowls and plates and rabbit and moon cookies in South Korea around Chuseok one year.

Some Mid-Autumn Festival goodies from South Korea

During the next full moon, try and see if you can find the rabbit in the moon!

Mooncakes and Other Eats

A major component of Mid-Autumn Festival in many cultures is the mooncake. Mooncakes are pastries made specially for this holiday, usually with flaky crusts and various fillings. They are often filled with red bean or lotus paste, but can be packed with fruit, nuts, meat, or green tea filling.

They are typically round (like the full moon), and have beautiful designs pressed into them. Some of the designs can be quite intricate! They also come in various sizes.

Mini mooncakes filled with pandan from the Chinatown Bakery in London

Other countries have their own special confections for their Mid-Autumn Festivals. Songpyeon are the dessert of choice in Korea. They are rice cakes shaped like a half-moon that come in a variety of colors. They are typically steamed on top of pine needles, which gives them a unique flavor. Songpyeon may be filled with sesame seeds, red bean, chestnuts, or regional specialties like pumpkin.

In Japan, dango are eaten for Tsukimi, which are round dumplings made of rice flour. It is traditional to display a certain number of dango (usually 15, for the 15th day of the 8th month) in a pyramid formation before eating them. However, dango are not usually filled with anything.

Lanterns

Lanterns are also an important part of Mid-Autumn Festival in some countries, such as China and Vietnam. Lanterns of all shapes, colors, and sizes are put on display and lit up at night.

Lanterns around Chinatown in London before the Mid-Autumn Festival

Besides hanging them up, lanterns may be carried in processions or sent into the heavens as sky lanterns. Riddles are also written and hung up with lanterns in different regions.

Highlight: Chuseok in Korea

Since I lived in South Korea for several years, I had the opportunity to learn a lot about Korea’s own Mid-Autumn Festival, Chuseok.

Generally, Koreans go to their hometowns for Chuseok. They visit with family and eat traditional foods, such as the aforementioned songpyeon. Traditionally, Koreans also arrange a table with prepared foods, drink, incense, and the names or portraits of deceased family members to commemorate them (charye, a form of jesa), as well as visit and clean the graves of their ancestors (seongmyo and beolcho, respectively).

Often, the preparations for Chuseok are left to Korean women, though this is changing. Additionally, some people choose to go on vacation domestically or around Asia (instead of returning to their hometown), since they have a few days off from work and school.

Koreans give gifts as a more contemporary tradition at both Chuseok and Seollal (Lunar New Year). Gifts may be given to family members, employees, coworkers, and so on to show appreciation. Popular gifts include sets of fruit, olive oil, hygiene products like shampoo and toothpaste, and coffee, as well as gift cards.

Fruit sets can become very pricey very quickly, as the biggest, best fruits and uncommon, expensive fruits (like apples) are included in such sets. For Chuseok one year, my school gave me this fruit set:

Absolutely massive fruit from a fruit set I was given for Chuseok

The pears were literally half the size of my face!

Surprisingly, Spam is also a very common gift. Yes, the extremely processed, canned meat product. Spam is actually very popular there, with South Korea being the second largest consumer of Spam globally, after the United States. These Spam gift sets, given for Chuseok and also Seollal (Lunar New Year), make up 60 percent of Korea’s yearly Spam sales.

What would you do with this much Spam?

If you ever visit South Korea around September or October, make sure you check what the dates for Chuseok are. Traveling over the autumn holiday has both its advantages and disadvantages. Some of the major tourist attractions may have fewer visitors, but some shops, restaurants, and attractions close for a few days.

In addition, getting around can be a nightmare on certain days. The roads become even more congested (especially on the highway between Seoul and Busan), and people snatch up train and plane tickets quickly.

Seeing as Chuseok is a more family-oriented holiday, there aren’t many huge events to attend (such as around Buddha’s Birthday). But the National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul puts on various events involving traditional culture, should you wish to learn more about Chuseok and partake in related activities.

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