On September 13, Chinese celebrated one of China’s biggest holidays—Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节). This article from the Gospel Times looks at if and how Christians should observe the holiday.
Mid-Autumn Festival—the Chinese Christian’s Thanksgiving and Reunion Festival
Mid-Autumn Festival, on the fifteenth day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar, is the second largest traditional festival in China, coming just after Chinese New Year. This year it is on September 13. This festival began in the Song Dynasty and has continued to this day. It has become a traditional holiday for our country as well as countries in Eastern and Southeast Asia, especially among local Chinese people.
So, for we who are Christians, how should we consider Mid-Autumn Festival?
I. The Origin of Mid-Autumn Festival
First, it is related to agricultural seasons. The ancients divided a year into four seasons, in accordance with the lunar calendar. Each season was further divided into the first, second, and third months. The eighth month of the lunar calendar happens to be the second month of autumn, so Mid-Autumn Festival is also called “Second Month of Autumn.” In the “Months” from the Book of Rites in Rites of Zhou, it says, “Take care of the elderly in the second month of Autumn, and distribute rice porridge for them to drink.” This is the earliest reference we have to Mid-Autumn Festival. At this time, crops and various fruits were ripening one after another. To celebrate their harvest and express their joyful emotions, farmers set aside “Mid-Autumn” for a festival. Perhaps this is also where the ancient tradition of “Autumn Rites” comes from.
Second, it comes from ancient imperial religious rites. Book of Rites records, “The Son of Heaven worships the sun in spring, and the moon in autumn.” This shows that as early as the Spring and Autumn Period, kings were already worshiping the sun and moon. Later royalty, officials, and scholars continued to imitate this, and it gradually spread to the common people. By the Tang Dynasty, Mid-Autumn Festival became a set holiday. “Records of Taizong” in the Book of Tang records “Fifteenth day of the eighth month, Mid-Autumn Festival.”
Third, it is related to changing customs and dynasties. According to tradition, towards the end of the Yuan Dynasty, Zhu Yuan-zhang led an uprising against the Yuan. He spread the word by ordering slips of paper to be hidden in cakes, saying “Rise up on the fifteenth day of the eighth month.” In the end, the rebel army gained a successful outcome because of this strategy. After the Ming Dynasty was founded, it was ordered that mooncakes be eaten every Mid-Autumn Festival. Later on, the people of the Ming and Qing Dynasties also called Mid-Autumn Festival the “Reunion Festival.” Scenes and Events in the Imperial Capital also says:
When worshipping the moon on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, cakes must be round, and the melons must be cut in a crisscross manner, so that it resembles the petals of a lotus . . . If a wife visits her parent’s home, she must return to her husband’s home on this day. For this is called the Reunion Festival.
In summary, Mid-Autumn Festival is also called the Moon Festival, the Second Month of Autumn, Worshipping-the-Moon Festival, Reunion Festival, etc. Because Mid-Autumn Festival’s origins are related to worship of the moon, some Christians believe that in order to keep the faith pure, we must not celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival.
From the perspective of cultural symbolism, in our current society Mid-Autumn Festival has already lost a lot of the superstitious elements. Instead, it carries on core values such as traditional ethics, filial piety, and faithful love, for example through reunions, admiring the moon, eating mooncakes, guessing riddles, etc. These things have no conflict with Christianity, therefore Christians can certainly have a meaningful Mid-Autumn Festival.
II. Mid-Autumn Festival’s Traditions and Their Cultural Significance
1. Watching the moon.
The autumn harvest is over, and agricultural work is finished. The family gathers together in their spare time. The autumn weather is cool and clear, and the full moon hangs above. Mid-Autumn Festival is most suitable for family and friends to watch the moon together. Literary giant of the Song Dynasty, Su Shi wrote in his poem Shuidiao Getou:
Why is the moon always full when people are apart? Just as people experience sorrow, joy, parting, and union, the moon is dim, bright, full, or crescent. Things have not been full since ancient times. May we live long, and share the moon though far apart.
The Wei-Jin folksong Moon of Autumn says, “Lifting my head to see the moon, I send my thoughts across a thousand bright leagues.”
2. Eating mooncakes.
As mentioned before, eating mooncakes at Mid-Autumn Festival was a national order passed down from the Ming Dynasty. It expressed the people’s desire to fight against a brutal regime as well as their patriotism and unity. As for the commonly used word “mooncake,” it comes from Wu Zimu’s Dreaming of Liang, as was simply a type of pastry. Later on, people often connected mooncakes with watching the moon, representing a family’s unity and expressing feelings of homesickness or of missing one’s family. Therefore, from ancient times, Mid-Autumn Festival has had the meaning of family reunion. Writings of Visiting Xihu says, “The fifteenth day of the eighth month is called Mid-Autumn Festival. People gift one another mooncakes, which represent reunion.”
3. Playing with lanterns and guessing at riddles.
Many lanterns are hung in public spaces on the night of the full moon of Mid-Autumn Festival. People gather to guess the riddles written on the lanterns. During feudal times, there was no free love, so guessing lantern riddles was an activity well-loved by young men and women. It later evolved into a way of dating among men and women. Meng Yuan-lao says in Dreams of the Eastern Capital:
On the Mid-Autumn night, the wealthy families decorate their homes and balconies, while commoners grab seats in restaurants to watch the moon. The strings and musical instruments are loud and lively, spreading far among houses. Hearing the sheng and yu instruments in the middle of the night, it felt as if we were beyond the clouds. In the alleyways children play at weddings throughout the night. The night markets thrive until morning.”
III. How should Christians Celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival?
First, affirm that watching the moon is way of praising and learning of God’s great creation. Just as the psalm says, “[He made] the moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:9). By looking up at the night sky, seeing the bright glories of the moon and stars, we exclaim that God’s creation is great and beautiful. Comparing this to our own humble and insignificant state, we further experience gratefulness for God’s love for us. The year is more than half over, and we should be thankful for God’s protection and peace throughout the year, that he blessed us with work and food, so that our stomachs might be filled, that we have peaceful relationships with our families and friends. Through watching the moon, we can think on the breadth and length and height and depth and God’s love, so that our relationship with God can grow more intimate.
Second, convey the love of family unity during Mid-Autumn Festival. In the customs of many places, the whole family, old and young, would share a meal together—eat mooncakes, admire the moon, share feelings and emotions. Likewise, the Bible has stories that yearn for family reunion. For example, in the Old Testament Joseph’s and his family’s meeting in Egypt, or the story of the prodigal son in the New Testament. Mid-Autumn Festival is a good time to practice the contents of Christian faith. Brothers and sisters can put aside time now to go home and visit elders and relatives, reunifying with them. Spending more time with family at home, eating mooncakes, watching TV, reading the Bible, praising God, celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival together, and thus expressing the beautiful desire in the Bible for unification. At the same time, we can join meaningful and positive social events with our families and friends, and so live out the positive example of Christ.
Finally, the church can also hold fellowships and visitations. Gather together those members who are not going home for the festival, and read the Bible, pray, play games, eat mooncakes, admire the moon, etc. Let brothers and sisters celebrate a cozy Mid-Autumn Festival together, and enjoy the goodness of unity in the Lord. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalms 133:1). Not only does this increase the bond between members, but can also elevate one’s own spiritual life.
For Christians, in addition to expressing our longing for home, we can also express our longing for our heavenly home. Jesus Christ accomplished salvation through his death and resurrection, and in the end, all humanity may meet with the Heavenly Father in our heavenly home, thus realizing the greatest unification on earth. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself” (John 14:3).
In this Mid-Autumn Festival, I wish joy and health to each and every Christian. Let us think of our beautiful heavenly home this Mid-Autumn Festival, prepare ourselves and be always alert, ready at any moment to welcome the final unification of Jesus Christ and all the saints on earth. Amen.
Image Credit: Pham Trung Kien from Pixabay
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