The Mid-Autumn Festival: as American as fruitcake?
Mid-Autumn Festival in China has nothing, or at least very little, to do with autumn. It’s about time off from work, and the gift that few seem to eat but keep giving to one another: mooncakes.
I learned about this hockey-puck sized pastry with its lard-based crust and dense, sugary interior when I moved from a quiet village in semirural Changping, about an hour’s drive north of Beijing, to the capital city.
When Mid-Autumn Festival came around, the city was abuzz with commercial activity, in particular shopping for mooncakes. Every grocery store seemed to have lines full of people carrying that single item to the register, wrapped in ostentatious, gaudy boxes.
I asked my friends about mooncakes, and they said that few people actually ate them. The taste didn’t fit with today’s demands — too fatty, too sweet. Most chose instead to exchange them as gifts at raucous dinners with family, friends or co-workers.
Some of my friends even jokingly called it the Mooncake Festival. To them, it wasn’t the traditional celebration of the autumn harvest, accompanied by moon-viewing and poetry recitation. Just like eating mooncakes, gazing at the moon and reading poetry aren’t too popular.
But for comparison, a similar thing happened to the springtime Duanwu Festival, popularly known as the Zongzi Festival for the holiday snack zongzi. The original, grim meaning of the Duanwu Festival a commemoration of the death by suicide of poet Qu Yuan is known to all. But it loses emphasis amid holiday snacks and festivities.
Today, people choose to focus on the party part over the historical aspect.
When years later I moved back to New York City, I didn’t expect to find any public celebration of the MidAutumn Festival. Nevertheless, I’ve been surprised at the ways the festival continues in at least the city’s heavily Chinese neighborhoods.
For weeks before Mid-Autumn Festival, Brooklyn’s Chinatown, where I live, looks a little like Beijing with people running in and out of Chinese bakeries, or standing in line at Chinese grocery stores. They’re buying mooncakes — still wrapped in those flashy packages, too.
It looks like Chinese culture can be preserved, while adapting to changing circumstances. And just like in Beijing, poetry and moon-gazing are unpopular in the Big Apple.
Whether in Beijing or New York, most people who celebrate the MidAutumn Festival treat it as a holiday similar to America’s Thanksgiving — a time to get together with family and friends without the pressures of major (and more expensive) holidays. The giving of a lardy disc-shaped pastry is part of that.
Most Americans don’t give mooncakes to one another, but they do have a cake that has become synonymous with Christmas: fruitcakes.
“The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake,” cracked comic Johnny Carson. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.”
And as another joke about fruitcakes goes, why do they make a perfect gift?
“The US Postal Service hasn’t found a way to destroy them.”
The Mid-Autumn Festival means mooncakes.