The Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val: as Amer­i­can as fruit­cake?

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - Matthew Turner NEW YORK JOUR­NAL Con­tact the writer at matthew­turner@chi­nadai­lyusa.com.

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.

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