How the Autumn Moon Festival Offers an Ancient Tradition, Delicious Dessert, and a Touch of Magic

What if you could learn about an ancient tradition, enjoy a delicious dessert, and turn an ordinary evening into a fairytale? You can with the Autumn Moon Festival, a holiday born of legend. It traditionally falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month or mid-September to early October on the Gregorian calendar. In 2021, it is celebrated on September 21st.

In East and Southeast Asian countries, it is the second most important holiday after the lunar new year, with a history dating back 3,000 years. It is a holiday themed around celebrating the circle of family and fall abundance. Traditionally, families gather to give thanks for the harvest, pray for special dreams or hopes, and enjoy what is thought to be the brightest moon of the year.

An Ancient Legend

The holiday originated in China. At festival time, when the moon is bright and full, legend says that one might see the Lady of the Moon. There are many variants of this story.

My mother and aunties grew up in a village in Guangdong Province, China, in the 1930s. The version which they told was of a corrupt and uncaring high official whom no one liked. He thought only of his pleasure. He kept many concubines and coveted immortal life. He paid a mysterious medicine man to make for him the elixir of everlasting life.

However, the high official’s prettiest concubine learned of his plans. Wishing to escape her degrading servitude, she made love to him when he came home until he tired and fell asleep. She then swallowed the elixir and left.

When the high official awoke to find his elixir gone, he sent an army to chase after her. However, as no one liked him, the soldiers didn’t search too hard, and the young woman ran fast. Gradually, as the elixir took its effect, her steps grew lighter until her feet lifted off the ground, and she floated to the moon to live forever.

Her figure is most visible during the full moon. The evening when the moon is brightest is the occasion of her festival.

Oakland Chinatown mural depicting the Lady of the Moon, mooncakes, and the elixir of immortality
Oakland Chinatown mural depicting the Lady of the Moon, mooncakes, and the elixir of immortality/Karin Jensen

On the evening of the Moon Festival, my mother and her family gathered with other villagers on the meeting grounds to enjoy the lunar glow. For the occasion, my step-grandmother and other village women prepared homemade moon cakes, a traditional pastry.

Although families celebrated together, it was a festival especially for women, for the softly glowing moon, waxing and waning manifests feminine yin energy. By custom on this evening, my mother and her sisters, along with other young women and girls of their village, brought out large wooden bowls filled with water and draped with translucent silk.

By positioning the dish correctly and peering into it, they could glimpse the veiled figure of the Lady of the Moon. Legend said that upon seeing her, a young woman or girl, like the Moon Lady before her, could express a secret dream and hope to have it fulfilled.

The moon festival was also for couples, for it was pleasant to sit together gazing at the full moon, eating the delicious mooncakes, sometimes with rice wine. Even if the couple could not be together, they could enjoy the night by watching the full moon at the same time and thinking of each other.

Women such as my step-grandmother, alone in the village while their husbands worked abroad, gazed longingly at the moon as they sang moon songs and ate moon cakes. My mother and aunties would sit with her, swaying as they sang:

We praise the moon so bright/We praise the moon so shining/Every year we praise the moon/We grow wiser and wiser.

Traditional Moon Song

In Chinese, the song is more beautiful, for the words have a singsong, rhyming quality.

Modern Ways of Celebrating

Today, the holiday is still celebrated by making or buying mooncakes to eat, lighting silk or paper lanterns, gathering with family to eat traditional and favorite foods, and enjoying the beauty of the full moon together.

Mooncakes for sale at the Napolean Super Bakery in Oakland Chinatown
Mooncakes for sale at the Napolean Super Bakery in Oakland Chinatown/Karin Jensen

Although the actual day is spent with family, community events lead up to the holiday. In San Francisco, for instance, the Merchants Association sponsored an elaborate celebration this past weekend with lion dancers and other traditional performers as well as rappers and pop music singers as a draw for tourists. After a year plagued by the pandemic, xenophobia, and hate crimes, the festival was psychologically and commercially essential as a return to normalcy.

Lion dancers at the Autumn Moon Festival
Lion dancers at the Autumn Moon Festival/San Francisco Chinatown Visitor Information Center

Evolving Mooncakes

While traditions have evolved, eating mooncakes has remained constant in celebrating the holiday. Traditional mooncakes are pastries with a sweet or savory filling. They are usually round to reflect the shape of the moon but are sometimes square. Cantonese-style mooncakes are baked, golden-brown, and molded or stamped on top with the name of the filling.

Typical sweet fillings include sweet bean, lotus seed, or red date paste that envelops one or more salted and cured duck egg yolks. Popular savory fillings include ham, Chinese sausage, and pork. All fillings are enrobed with a layer of cake flour dough

Souped Up Recipes

As with Christmas fruitcakes, classic mooncakes will always exist because they are a tradition, but not everyone loves them. They are a dense, rich, old-world food, which doesn’t always suit modern palates. Consequently, mooncakes have evolved and been filled with everything from alcoholic infusions, red velvet, tiramisu, ice cream, and jelly to suit modern tastes and the tastes of the Asian diaspora.

I like to purchase traditional mooncakes in my local Chinatown and experiment with making non-traditional versions. Here, for instance, is a link to a no-bake recipe using vanilla cream cookies, cream cheese, and dried strawberries!

Search YouTube or Tik Tok, and you’ll find an endless supply of recipes to suit every taste. Mooncake molds are inexpensive and readily available through Amazon. They make even simple cakes look beautiful.


Autumn Moon Festival lanterns in Oakland Chinatown
Autumn Moon Festival lanterns in Oakland Chinatown/Karin Jensen

Colorful silk or paper lanterns have become a holiday symbol, and who doesn’t enjoy their whimsicality and storybook quality? You can readily pick some up at a local Chinese market, order them online, or make your own, particularly as a fun project with children.

What I Love About the Holiday

Imagine sharing a delicious, leisurely Asian meal with family or friends at home. Afterward, light up your silk or paper lanterns and bring them outside with a pot of tea and mooncakes. Enjoy the beauty of the full moon. Try to find the moon’s reflection in your cup of tea; make a wish when you do. Enjoy eating mooncakes. Tell a fantastical story about a Lady who lives on the moon, one you’ve memorized or perhaps one you read by flashlight. Many children’s books, such as Amy Tan’s beautifully written and gorgeously illustrated book, The Moon Lady, tell a version of the story.

Simon and Schuster

Autumn Moon Festival is a time to celebrate your circle of family and the Earth’s bounty. It creates space to sense and acknowledge the arrival of autumn. It is also a fairytale experience.

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