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5 Things you need to know about the Mid-Autumn Festival

Food, traditions, gifts, and a quick history lesson

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the lantern or moon festival, takes place annually on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar. This year, that day falls on September 21. To celebrate the holiday, families and friends gather to revel in festivities like feasting on mooncakes, playing with lanterns, and moon gazing. But, while we’re no strangers to this yearly affair, what is Mid-Autumn really about? How did it all begin? And why do we even celebrate it? To answer your questions about this holiday, we’re here to let you in on everything from the festival's time-honoured traditions to its history and legend. So, whether you’re looking to get acquainted with the holiday, or just hoping to refresh your folklore, here's everything you need to know about one of Hong Kong's most celebrated holidays.

RECOMMENDED: Simply want to wine and dine during the festival? Check out the city's best restaurants or these beautiful rooftop bars

The origin
Photograph: Courtesy Lee Tung Avenue

The origin

Although the true origin of Mid-Autumn Festival is not known for certain, history records show that moon-worshipping practices began over 3,000 years ago in the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BC). But the festival only became an official celebration in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) when ancient emperors of China would host a feast to make offerings to deities and the moon in celebration of the year’s harvest. After the Tang Dynasty, Mid-Autumn Festival also became a time of the year for the emperor to reward his officials for their hard work and contributions. Over time, it evolved into a festival of many traditions: to give thanks to the moon, pray for better luck, fortune and fertility, and reunite with the family to celebrate and admire the moon in its full glory.

Legends of the moon
Photograph: Courtesy cc/flickr/俊隆 陳

Legends of the moon

There are many versions of the myth and story behind Mid-Autumn Festival, but the most well-known revolves around an archer hero named Hou Yi, and his wife Chang’e.

As the legend goes, Hou Yi was rewarded with an elixir of immortality after shooting down nine out of the ten suns that ravaged the land with drought and disaster. However, when Hou Yi’s apprentice, Feng Meng, attempted to steal the elixir, Chang’e stopped him by drinking the elixir herself. After doing so, she became immortal and floated to the moon, never to be seen by her beloved husband again. After learning what had happened to Chang’e, Hou Yi would prepare a feast on this day every year when the moon is believed to be the fullest, in hopes of catching a glimpse of his wife’s shadow. 

Time-honoured traditions
Photograph: Shutterstock

Time-honoured traditions

Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance
The Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance is one of the most spectacular traditions during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong. Legend has it that in the 1880s, the villagers in Tai Hang successfully chased off plague and evil spirits by parading the village with a straw dragon covered with incense. To commemorate the victory, the villagers would perform a fire dragon dance through the alleys and streets of Tai Hang every year since. The real highlight here, though, is not the dance, but the spectacle of the huge 67-meter-long dragon covered in 72,000 incense sticks burning on its body. The Tai Hang dragon is a massive structure made out of hemp rope, pearl straw, and ratton and requires at least 300 performers to prop it up. Today, this public event has become one of the most famous annual rituals in Hong Kong and shines as a testament to the city’s rich cultural traditions.

Photograph: Courtesy Leisure and Cultural Services Department

Lanterns are no doubt one of the oldest traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival. For thousands of years, communities would come together during the Mid-Autumn festival to write wishes on sky lanterns (the type that floats up into the sky) and light them in honour of the legendary goddess of the moon, Chang’e, hoping that she would bless her worshippers with luck. Due to safety concerns, however, lighting sky lanterns is prohibited in Hong Kong. But as Mid-Autumn approaches every year, you can usually find lantern displays in all shapes and forms popping up across the city. 

Moon gazing
Each year, there are three important days to gaze at the moon among the Chinese community: the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival where we welcome the moon; on the day of the festival, to admire the moon; and the following day, to send off the moon. This annual affair is a popular tradition that still remains in our modern city and every year, families, friends, and couples flock to the best spots in town to admire the beautiful moon.

The noms
Photograph: Courtesy Shangri-La Group

The noms


Mooncakes are said to have originated from Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) revolutionaries as a means to pass covert messages hidden in them. Nowadays, mooncakes symbolise togetherness and harmony, and every year we see shops and restaurants touting mooncakes of all kinds. In fact, there's an overwhelming variety of flavours to choose from these days. The most traditional ones, however, are made with a lotus seed paste and a salted egg yolk centre. Mooncakes are eaten in small wedges with families or friends during the night of Mid-Autumn, often served with tea or wine.

Photograph: Courtesy cc/flickr/watashiwani

Water caltrops ('ling kok')
Known as water caltrops, and sometimes water chestnuts, this lesser-known customary food is only harvested once a year, usually a few weeks before the festival. They are probably one of the weirdest-looking nuts you'll ever see, but don’t judge a nut by its shell as underneath its devilish appearance, is white nutty flesh with a slight crunch that tastes like a mildly sweet combination of roasted chestnuts and potato. While some consider the chestnut to resemble a bat, an auspicious symbol of prosperity because its Chinese character is homophonous with the word 'fok' (which means luck and prosperity in Chinese); others believe that this dish is eaten during the festival because the word 'ling' in its Chinese name, sounds like the same ‘ling’ in the Chinese idiom 'chung ming ling lei', which means smart or clever

Sweet glutinous rice dumplings
No Mid-Autumn meal would be complete without serving up some sweet glutinous rice dumplings ('tong yuen'). Not only do they taste delicious and make a great post-feast dessert, but it is also symbolic in reflecting the tradition of families being together during the festival as the character 'yuen', is the same letter used in the Chinese word 'tuen yuen', which means togetherness. 

Festive sips
Photograph: Courtesy Green Gingko Tea

Festive sips

Osmanthus wine
We pair mooncakes with all different kinds of beverages nowadays, but the most traditional during Mid-Autumn Festival is probably osmanthus wine. It is a Chinese alcoholic drink that uses baijiu and osmanthus flowers to create a sweet wine with a subtle floral aroma. Osmanthus is traditionally believed to be the key to longevity and is often offered during toasts to encourage a long and healthy life. Some historical records also suggest that osmanthus flowers were exchanged between countries during the Warring States period as a symbol of peace and goodwill. The Chinese character for osmanthus 'gwai’ also sounds similar to the word for wealth, so drinking osmanthus wine on the night of the full moon also represents the celebration of prosperity, health, and harmony. We'll cheers to that.

In addition to wine, tea and mooncakes are also an inseparable pair. Apart from cutting through the grease, tea also aids digestion, which definitely comes in handy after a full feast and sticky mooncakes! 

Now that you know all about the festival...

It's time to get the celebration going! Our ultimate guide to the Mid-Autumn Festival will take you through everything from the best lantern displays and celebratory events in town to rooftop bars and restaurants that offer a fantastic view of the sky.

Photograph: Courtesy Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong

If you're filing your holiday leaves for the Mid-Autumn Festival, you can also indulge in a staycation. Check out the city's most romantic hotels, quirky boutique hotels, to catch a little R&R. For more inspiration read about our experiences from various hotels in the cityAnd there is no need to worry about your pets because there are also many pet-friendly hotels for your special paw pals!

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