17 September 2005

Moon Cake Festival

This year, the Moon Cake Festival falls on the full moon of 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Gregorian calendar: 18 September. Since I have arrived, the streets have been filled with moon cake stands and lanterns for kids.

It is believed that the festival dates back to an ancient Chinese ceremony, when offerings of fruit and cakes were laid out for the Moon Goddess in gratitude for a bountiful harvest.

Of all the folklore surrounding the Festival, this is a brief description of one of the stories:

One day, the Emperor of China awoke to a wickedly hot day. He looked up and there were ten suns in the sky. He immediately called on his top archer, Hou Yi, and had him shoot down nine of the suns. (up until this point, everything I have read is in agreement with the above.) Now, Hou Yi was either married to, or offered in payment, Chang Er, who was his wife/became his wife. For Hou Yi’s deed of dispensing with those unnecessary suns, the Emperor gave him a magic immortality elixir. And maybe Chang Er stole the potion, it’s not clear exactly how she got it, but she did. She drank it and found herself on the moon.
There she built a palace and lives to this day.

In the month or so leading up to the Moon festival, Moon Cakes are sold on almost every street, in temporary stands in front of bakeries or just on the side of the road. I have had weeks to get photos of said Moon Cake stands, and here it is, the full moon just starting to pick through the darkened sky, and I have no pictures.

I have, however, partaken in the eating of the Moon Cake. They are small, crust covered, filled cakes, about three inches in diameter. The dense filling is made of coconut, lotus seed, red bean paste, sweetened ham, (yuck), and other mysterious ingredients. And in the very middle is a nasty, salty, egg yolk, representing the moon. If you remove the egg, most of them are really good. I try not to think about the additives inside; they must have a shelf life greater than that of Twinkies. They sit out, baking in the street side stands for weeks on end and look and taste as fresh as the day they were made. The modern miracle of preservatives.

Everywhere you look, especially in the past week, people are stopping their motorbikes and cars to jump out and deliver boxed packages of Moon Cakes. The packaging is as pretty as the cakes. And it seems there is really only one major producer of the product. This is definitely that bakery’s high season.

It is also known as the lantern festival. Lanterns in the shapes of swans, rabbits, helicopters, butterflies, and ships, to name a few, hang suspended from the front of every third store. They are made of thin strips of bamboo, red cellophane, and decorated with paint. Children attach candles to the inside and will light them tonight, (hopefully, with full adult supervision). I bought a large sailing vessel, but will dispense with the candle lighting.

I had hoped there would be some large event to attend, but was told it all takes place in peoples homes with a big family meal. About an hour ago, a colleague from work called to see if I wanted to go to one of the large pagodas to watch the lantern lighting. Too little notice and I am too tired after a day of walking around town. I will put my lantern out and gaze at the full moon, and just possibly howl. Then again, I may just hold of for the autumnal equinox in three days.

In praise of the Moon Goddess,