The Mid-Autumn Festival (and a little bit on Calendars)

I know this is very Western-centric, but I like how, back in Singapore – where there were technically two public holidays catering for each religious/ethnic group – each community’s festival reflected how time itself flowed and was notarised differently for each of us.

The Western festivals, Good Friday and Christmas (and National Day, things like that) stood firmly in one spot in every list, rooted like trees. But there were other grounds, other completely different bases to count the days. For the Muslims, from a land without seasons, the purely lunar festivals wandered endlessly around the solar months, following their very own compass.

Chinese festivals, based on a lunisolar calendar, were a little different; the days wandered within fences in an alien system, but were not nomadic. Everyone knew roughly when the festival was going to be – Chinese New Year was not that far off from the ‘real’ one, and it was the same with the Mid-Autumn Festival – it would be somewhere in September. Ish. Only my grandma, flipping through her arcane almanac (I loved those texts and miss them), would ever know exactly which day it was.

It’s a bit easier now; there are ways to just check the date online, which is how I knew it was tomorrow. (The fact that a massive, gibbous moon has peeked over my neighbour’s roof also helps; as does experience, watching the tide, things like that.) But mystique is always a terrible thing to lose, I think, and as with many other things age and technology has taken some of the mystique out of this (ostensibly) arcane calculation. Well, can’t stop progress…


There is a story about mooncakes.

The Mid-Autumn Festival was a day for family union, and so in settlements all around China on that year – probably 1358 or 1359 AD – people gathered to enjoy the confections, not to mention the moon itself.

Packed with lotus seed paste, laboriously cooked and then laboriously baked, the cakes travelled through a China devastated by Mongol misrule – a small pleasure magnified by bad times. They were precious, so everyone got merely a small slice; and it would have to be someone overeager to get his share of sweetness, perhaps even before the moon was visible, to cut into a mooncake bought from somewhere and see the little note curled inside.

On the 15th day of the 8th month, take up arms and fight the Tartars…’

It would be ten years to the end, but here under the full moon (so the legend goes) was the beginning.


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