Mid-Autumn Festival: An Insider’s Guide

Last updated on October 30th, 2023 at 09:28 pm

Every fall, I look forward to not just a cooler change of weather but another occasion to see my extended family: the Mid-Autumn Festival. We celebrate by getting together for a large family meal, just as we do for the Lunar New Year. 

Most years, someone will volunteer their home as our place of gathering; other times, we’ll find a restaurant that serves only the best Taiwanese or Chinese cuisine. 

These days, reuniting with your family and exchanging gifts may not be possible because of COVID-19 and expensive travel costs. However, in the spirit of the Mid-Autumn Festival, you can still send good fortune to your loved ones using Remitly. We’re here to make international money transfers both safe and convenient.

No matter what, this important festival is marked by four traditions—and even this year, with social distancing, you’ll find people celebrating this way around the world.

What is the Mid-Autumn Festival?

The Mid-Autumn Festival is the second most important holiday in China after the Lunar New Year, though many cultures across East and Southeast Asia also celebrate it. That includes Asian immigrants around the world, including families like mine.

The Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the moon and gives thanks for a plentiful harvest. Though often thought of as a Chinese holiday, many other countries observe the Mid-Autumn Festival, including Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and Cambodia. 

4 Traditions You Can’t Miss During the Mid-Autumn Festival

While customs vary between cultures, the most popular ways of celebrating the holiday include gathering with family, giving mooncakes, hanging lanterns, and moon gazing.

1. Family reunions

The festival is based on a beautiful, bittersweet legend about two lovers (see more below). Alternate versions of the legend describe the Mid-Autumn Festival as the only day of the year when the two lovers can be reunited. For this reason, gathering with loved ones is a central part of the holiday. 

In fact, the latter character making up the Mandarin word for “reunion” (團圓) is the symbol for “roundness.” 

It’s no coincidence that this occasion for reuniting also celebrates the moon, which, when full, represents harmony and togetherness.

2. Mooncakes and more mooncakes

The Mid-Autumn Festival wouldn’t be the same without mooncakes. Every year when the holiday rolls around between mid-September and early October, we treat ourselves to these iconic cakes. They’re a small, round pastry with an ornate design on top and some kind of dense filling inside. 

An acquired taste by Western standards, my favorite mooncakes are the traditional ones filled with red bean or lotus seed paste and egg yolk.

Mooncakes are a hallmark of the Mid-Autumn Festival—in fact, the holiday is also widely known as the Mooncake Festival. But it’s not the only thing that defines the festival, even if it’s the most delicious.

Beyond simply eating mooncakes, people also give these delicacies to their friends, colleagues, and family in the weeks leading to the Mid-Autumn Festival. With their elaborate designs and elegant packaging, they’re almost more art than food.

Now, mooncakes come in a variety of flavors, including chocolate, green tea, coffee, and even durian. And they’re serious business! In fact, major fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci offer designer mooncake boxes each year that cost a lot more than your average baked goods.

3. Displaying lanterns 

As the Mid-Autumn Festival approaches, you’ll often see homes and storefronts displaying colorful lanterns. They’re more than a decoration, though—lanterns symbolize good fortune and luck in Chinese culture, as in lighting the way to a bright and prosperous future.

Hong Kong’s Victoria Park notably holds an annual Mid-Autumn Festival celebration that includes an elaborate lantern display.

4. Moon gazing

Traditionally, the Mid-Autumn Festival marked a time to worship the moon and its goddess, Chang’e. This involved burning incense and setting out food as sacrifices. However, this custom has since evolved to simply admiring and observing the moon. 

In Taiwan, people often barbeque outside at night during the Mid-Autumn Festival, combining two customs into one: reuniting with loved ones over a meal while also viewing the moon. 

The Amazing Origin Story of the Mid-Autumn Festival

Chinese culture is rich with myths and legends, and the story behind the Mid-Autumn Festival is among the most well-known. Although many variations of the tale exist, one of its most popular versions centers around the goddess of the moon—and how she came to be. 

According to the legend, 10 suns once circled the Earth, ravaging it with unbearable heat. Severe drought prevented any fruitful harvests, leaving crops withered and villagers starving across China. An archer named Hou Yi, married to a woman named Chang’e, sought to change this. He shot down nine of the suns, leaving only one to provide light to the world. 

This tremendous feat impressed many, including the gods. In recognition of Hou Yi’s achievement, the Queen of Heaven rewarded him with the elixir of immortality—something that caught the eyes of many, like Hou Yi’s apprentice, Peng Meng. 

But Hou Yi did not want to drink the elixir and become immortal without his wife, Chang’e. Thus, he hid it in the safety of their home. Spying upon him, Peng Meng knew Hou Yi possessed the elixir and wanted it for himself. 

On the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar—the day that would eventually become known as the Mid-Autumn Festival—Peng Meng broke into Hou Yi’s home, knowing the archer was away hunting. Only Chang’e was present, and rather than let Peng Meng seize the elixir, she drank it. 

The elixir’s magic was immediate, and Chang’e flew into the sky as an immortal. But rather than join the other gods in heaven, she wanted to remain close to her husband—so she chose the moon as her residence and in doing so, became the Moon Goddess.

When Hou Yi returned from his hunt, he was shocked and saddened to discover what had happened in his absence. As a gesture to his beloved wife, he began burning incense and laying out her favorite foods. 

Over time, local townspeople began doing the same to commemorate Chang’e’s sacrifice, and the practice spread throughout China as a way to give thanks for a plentiful harvest.

Sending Money Home with Remitly

With Remitly’s app, it’s easy to send money to China, to Vietnam, and to many other countries celebrating at this time of year. 

We understand that even from far away, you want to stay close to family and friends during special occasions. Remitly can help.