Reflections on the Moon Festival

Today is the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. Everyone (okay, not everyone) of Chinese descent around the world will celebrate the Moon festival, also known widely as the Mid Autmn Festival or as I know it, the Lantern Festival.

The Moon Festival is rich with legend and symbolism.

I wish I could tell you I was captivated by the legend of the Moon Goddess Chang’e (or Chang-O) as a little girl growing up in Singapore. Nor could I say that on this one night of the Moon Festival, I gazed longingly at the full moon, hoping that she would grant my wish. In fact, I didn’t even know she existed until my late teens.

The egg yolk in the mooncake represents the moon; Photo by:

I wish I could say I’ve always enjoyed eating mooncakes, creamy-smooth pastes of azuki bean or lotus seed wrapped in a delicate pastry shell. Made in molds carved with auspicious Chinese characters or filigree flowers, I now regard them as artworks. Growing up, I didn’t care for the sticky, sweet filling, and especially not the salty, golden yolk often hiding within.

However, I can tell you one thing that I looked forward to every year—parading around the neighborhood with my very own lantern (there’s a reason why I call it the Lantern Festival!). Before festival day, my parents would take us to the market to buy cellophane lanterns: our choice of butterfly, dragon, rabbit, goldfish, rooster—you name the animal, they had it.


A menagerie on sale in Singapore's Chinatown; Photo by

See here or here for more examples.

On the evening of the Lantern Festival, I’d hold out my goldfish (or butterfly or rabbit) as my dad lit a candle and carefully placed it inside. (Yes, it was a naked flame and a total fire hazard. I’m convinced many a poor child burnt a hole in their lantern, or even caught their whole entire lantern on fire!). Then I’d skip outside beyond our gate and join the neighborhood children parading up and down the street like little fireflies darting around the inky night.

This year, I tried desperately to find a cellophane lantern for Isaac and for nostalgia’s sake. I’m guessing these fire hazards aren’t allowed in the U.S. (go figure!), either that or I’m just not “in the know.”

Rather than despairing, I decided to teach him the meaning behind the festival. A gorgeous picture book “Thanking the Moon–Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival” by Grace Lin (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) came to the rescue.

“Thanking the Moon” is one of several picture books Lin has written based on her own family adventures

Created in vivid, larger-than-life goache colors, the book depicts a Chinese American family heading to a moonlit meadow for a nighttime moon-viewing picnic (something we never did when I was a child). Along the way, we learn about symbolism in all things round–the full moon symbolizes harmony and wholeness, round pomelos and grapes and paper lanterns are unpacked; the young narrator pours round cups of tea, and everyone nibbles on soft, sweet mooncakes. As the glowing moon watches over them, the family makes silent wishes and enjoys the family togetherness important during so many Chinese holidays. In the back of the book, Lin explains the meaning behind the festival and its significance.

My childhood memories of pretty, crinkly cellophane lanterns will forever be with me but for my son to miss out on them may not be such a loss after all. At least I won’t have to worry about him burning himself. But I’m hoping that as Isaac gets older, he understands the importance of spending the holidays with family and sends silent wishes to Chang’e as she looks down upon us mere mortals on this special day.