September 27, 2010
Moon Festival

Mid-Autumn/Moon Festival is one of the most important cultural festivals in Taiwan along with Dragon Boat Festival, Chinese New Year, and one of the few public holidays left.

Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as Moon Festival or Zhongqiu Jieh in Chinese, is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar, which falls in September or early October. The festival has its origins as a harvest celebration, but as farming has changed so much this isn't really as relevant today in Taiwan, where many different crops are grown and harvested at various times throughout the year. However, the underlying basis of the festival is to get families together, and in the last few decades this has taken the form of family (and friends) barbecues.

The seasons are not as well defined in Taiwan as many of us are used to as the climate is sub-tropical. So autumn usually lasts for anything from a week to a month, when it's air conditioners unplugged and a search for your socks. So the term "mid-autumn" isn't really a seasonal or climate indication. Having said that, I always feel this festival marks a move towards lower temperatures, and as if to prove my point the Central Weather Bureau announced today that nighttime temperatures will be falling in the next couple of days (huzzah!)

There are many traditions associated with the festival, including worshiping various local gods and associated games for children, making predictions, and writing poems and riddles similar to Lantern Festival, however these have mostly been lost in Taiwan. 

The theme that has persisted through the millennia, and as you would expect, is all things moon as there is a "new moon" on this date (hence the lunar date of the festival), as well as the emphasis on family and friends getting together, which is the most endearing feature in my opinion.

A couple of traditions that are still widely known include a hare or rabbit in the moon, and Houyi and Changyi. When the moon is visible, you might well be able to see a rabbit or hare, but whatever you do don't point or one of your ears is likely to be lopped off. I have never had an explanation why, but better safe than sorry!

The legend of Houyi and Changyi was brilliantly summarized for my daughter at her kindergarten as follows (abridged and embellished):

<i>Originally there were ten suns, and each one took turns appearing in the sky. However one day, all ten suns appeared in the sky at once, and the Earth burned!
At that time, Houyi was a great archer. He shot and killed nine of the suns, and became an instant celebrity. The king rewarded him with a magic pill giving him eternal life. Foolishly however, he hid the pill under the pillow of his wife, Changyi. 
One day Changyi discovered the magic pill and swallowed it! Houyi was angry, but it was too late. Changyi flew all the way to the moon. Houyi tried to stop her, but there was nothing he could do. Now she lives on the moon and Houyi can only visit her one day every year on Moon Festival.</i>

As with all festivals in Taiwan, food plays an important part and there are festival related treats for Moon Festival.



The most important is the moon cake. They come in a dazzling array of varieties, but essentially they either look like the moon (being round) and/or contain an egg yolk (also being round and yellow).

To be honest, I have found that these are a delicacy that is not that high on the list of delicacies to try in Taiwan. Obviously as there are so many varieties that this is a general statement, and you should absolutely try them, but they are perhaps an acquired taste (and please post a comment if you disagree).

The fruit most commonly associated with Moon Festival is the Pomelo, although apparently persimmons are also a favorite.

Pomelos are more fun as after you peel off the thick skin it's traditional to wear it as a hat, although again I haven't been able to find an explanation of why beyond "Because it's cute!"

The most common form of cooking during Moon Festival is barbecuing,  and if you happened to be in Taiwan today (September 22nd, 2010) then you could be forgiven for thinking that it was National Barbecue Day co-inciding with a full moon (which we actually got to see this year). 

And although Taiwan is not a big barbecuing nation in the terms of a gas fired barbie in the back yard, it does make sense. Evening temperatures are dropping, it's a social event and you want to see (but not point) at the moon. Outdoors is therefore good.

If you visit a supermarket or local store, you'll see large displays of essentially disposable mini barbecues with all the accessories, and a range of prepared food. Although these days the areas where you can have a barbecue are restricted, if you find yourself in a place where there are barbecue areas, you will be sure to make some new friends if you give it a go.

Although many of the origins of this festival have been lost, it is one of the most important holidays of the year, and the core value of a social gathering remains.

As always, if you are in Taiwan during this festival, I would strongly recommend getting out and trying what you can. Just don't point!


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