07 October 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival

Singapore is a city of festivals in the Fall. The first of three (Hungry Ghost not included) is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is celebrated in China and east Asia, falling on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (September). It is also known as the Moon Festival and, in Singapore, as the Lantern Festival or the Mooncake Festival. It is the second most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, after the Lunar New Year.

The festival falls on or near the Autumnal Equinox, and it celebrates the abundance of the harvest. The moon plays an important role in Chinese society, and it is supposedly at its brightest when full during the festival.

The festival has a history dating back more than 3,000 years. It is associated with several versions of a legend of the archer Hou Yi and his wife Chang Er. One has the skilled archer shooting down nine of the ten suns that orbit the Earth at the behest of the Emperor (each sun would cross the sky once every ten days, but one day, they all appeared in the sky, burning the Earth). He was rewarded with a pill that contained the elixir of everlasting life, but Chang Er found it and consumed it. It gave her the ability to fly, and she flew to the moon, much to Hou Yi's dismay. Hou Yi was granted a home in the sun, and once a year the gods allow the two to meet. That is during the full moon of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The moon and the sun here also represent the female and male principles of Yin and Yang. Legend has it that if you look at the full moon, you can see Chang Er's celestial companion, a hare with a pestle, working on an antidote to allow her to return to Hou Yi.

To celebrate, families give mooncakes to their relatives. These are dense round cakes made with lotus and often containing duck eggs. They provide a mix of sweet and salty. They also served a practical purpose, at least in legend. It is said that in the 14th Century, during Mongol rule of China when group gatherings of Chinese were banned, mooncakes that were distributed as part of the festival contained messages to the Chinese rebels (the Mongols did not eat moon cakes) stating the time of uprising during the festival. The Mongols were defeated, ushering in the rule of the Ming Dynasty. This is not necessarily supported by historical record, but it has become a part of the lore of the festival.

As part of the festival, a display is put up in Chinatown with models of various temples, churches, and other places of worship throughout the world. I am not sure the connection (other than that the models are essentially very large lanterns), but I have included some pictures. I will leave you to identify each one.

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