In Asia, the Mid-Autumn festival is a widely celebrated holiday. Despite the fact that it is originally a Chinese holiday, there are also huge celebrations that take place in Taiwan, Vietnam, and Singapore. Extravagant displays of fireworks, dragon dancing, martial arts, paper lanterns, and colorful balloons can be seen all over the neighborhood on that wonderful 15th day of August. In each province, there are subtle differences between routines of celebration. For example, in the Fujian province, females are expected to cross the Nanpu River for prosperity and a long life. In Guangdong, women and children have a custom of worshipping the Moon, burning incense sticks in front of a table of fresh fruits for a sacrifice to Chang’e the Moon Goddess. In Sichuan, people celebrate by eating dumplings while little children run in the streets with decorated grapefruits. Poems are also read by all, and they usually involve nature. These subtle differences make each celebration refreshingly unique, and above all, they share the common wishes of reunion, happiness, safety, health and harvest. 1
From its transition from Asia to the United States, certain parts of the holiday have been “lost in translation,” but the heart of the holiday is still widely celebrated by Asian immigrants. Certain parts of the festival, like lanterns and fireworks, aren’t seen much in America. In addition to the lack of room for extravagant displays of lanterns and balloons in such a crowded city like New York, the fact that Asians are a minority in the American population make this festival more introverted in nature, for lack of a better word. Over time, families have gone from celebrating in the outdoors to taking part in smaller festivities in their homes. I can say from experience that as a child growing up in America, all I remembered from the Mid-Autumn Festival were the mooncakes and the extra allowance my parents would give me. My relatives would often tell me stories of beautiful fireworks that painted the sky, but all I could do was dream.
That’s not to say the Mid-Autumn Festival has lost all of its flair, though. In Chinatown, there are still dragon dances and huge banquets that last all night. Paper lanterns are definitely not near the quantity or extravagance that is seen all over Asia, but they are still hung across the rooftops to signify the holiday. San Francisco is known for its celebrations of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and it’s not surprising when considering that it has a Chinatown of it’s own. They regularly host lantern festivals and dragon dances throughout the city, and other fun activities for kids2. San Francisco has a wonderful reputation of being a lively city not much unlike New York, and the festivities that take place there during the Mid-Autumn Festival are no different. If you’d like to see another video of a dragon dancing performance (this time in San Francisco), click here. Another city that regularly takes part in celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival is Toronto, which also has a large Asian population.
One of the great things that have remained similar are the banquets and cuisines that are hosted all around Chinatown during this time. Although these banquets usually took place outdoors, under the full moon, it is practically impossible to accomodate all the people in Chinatown in such a bustling and crowded city, and so people eat indoors. I personally think it would be better to eat inside because it eliminates weather as a possible issue. Unlike the Americanized Chinese food that is often seen all over the city in take-out restaurants, most of the food that is served in these large banquets is authentic Chinese food that could be bought in places like Shanghai and Beijing. Chinese banquets are often served as a twelve-course meals, where each dish is put at the center of the table for all the guests to take as they please. Four appetizers are served, eight main dishes, and one or two desserts are given at the end. Foods can vary greatly, and from my experience, seafood is where the food stands out. Some of my favorite dishes include Stir-Fried Mussels and Snails, Pan-Fried Chilean Sea Bass, and the ever famous Shark Fin Soup. For examples of some of the tasty dishes that can be served at a Mid-Autumn Festival banquet, click here.
Dragon dances are common for many Asian holidays, and are still widely performed in America. The dragon costumes tend to be very big and often require more than two people to operate it; one for the head and one for the tail. As one may expect, dancing in these heavy costumes requires a lot of coordination and rhythmic skill. These performers have to dance to the beat of the music played in the streets, and to tell the truth, I find it rather amazing that accidents don’t occur frequently. Especially for the performers in the middle, the costume acts as a cloak, and makes it impossible to see in front of you. Foreigners might find the dances rather bizarre with the head of the dragon moving up and down, and seeing legs scuttle under the costumes (I didn’t enjoy them much as a child) but after a while, it begins to grow on you. The dragons themselves are a very important power symbol for many different countries, and China is not any different. Dragons are considered a symbol of power, strength, and good luck, 3 and the dragon dances are said to give prosperity to those who watch it.
Here’s a video of a dragon dancing performance in Boston’s Chinatown. This dragon dance is a more modified version of a traditional dragon dance; poles are used to support each section of the dragon costume instead of the people themselves.
As I had mentioned previously, the Mid-Autumn Festival has definitely been altered and cut during its transition from Asia to America. For many people who live here and know of the festival, they know it by another name: the Mooncake Festival. As a culprit myself, there are many people who really only celebrate the holiday by eating mooncake. That may partially be because America is a food-loving country (after all, about 25% of Americans are obese4), but who knows. The gigantic balloons and colorful lanterns that litter the streets of Taiwan won’t be seen in America, but to tell the truth, that’s the way it goes with many culture-specific holidays. If Chinese people celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival with more fervor in America than they did in China, there’d be other questions to be asked.
No matter how you slice it, the Mid-Autumn Festival is almost as important to Asians as Christmas is to people all around the world, considering the historical depth and cultural matrimony this holiday has to offer. It may not be as widely celebrated in the U.S., but the significance remains the same.
I’m hungry…I think I’ve talked too much. Time to go grab myself some mooncake!
- “Middle Autumn Festival.” ChinaTravel. 9 Sep. 2010. Web. 10 May 2011. ↩
- Cheung, Camilla. “Release a Chinese Lantern at the Mid-Autumn Festival in China.” The Circumference. Web. 16 May 2011. ↩
- “Chinese Dragon.” Wikipedia. 7 May 2011. Web. 10 May 2011. ↩
- “Overweight and Obesity.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 10 May 2011. ↩