Why the Moon Festival is all about roundness

Photo of Mid-Autumn Festival
Alex Ho/Creative Commons

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The Mid-Autumn Festival, or moon festival, traditionally marks the end of the autumn harvest and near the start of the autumn season in most Southeast and East Asian countries. Based on the lunar calendar, the festival supposedly takes place when the moon is at its largest, brightest and roundest. For Chinese families, a typical 中秋节, which translates to mid-autumn holiday, involves gathering with family for dinner and moon gazing, along with eating a special pastry made just for this occasion: mooncakes. From the moon to the mooncakes, I noticed a pattern — the round, circular shape. The Chinese word for “round” has a similar pronunciation to the word “reunion.” Look out for these round objects that signify a good reunion for Chinese families and friends during the festival. 

Full moon

The star of the show is nonetheless the full moon at its brightest and largest of the year. A circular or round shape signifies unity and wholeness in Chinese culture. Additionally, Chinese tradition emphasizes completeness and harmony within the family. Considered at its most perfect form on this day, the full moon serves as a sign of luck and prosperity.

Round table

The main celebration is at the dinner table. If you’ve been to a Chinese banquet hall restaurant you may have noticed how all the tables are round, maybe with the addition of a Lazy Susan in the center. One reason is its practicality. Dishes are meant to be shared between the entire table, so a round table will allow all seaters to have equal access to the food in the center. However, it also signifies a complete family gathering together. Sitting at a round table signifies respect for coming together to eat and bond. 

Mooncake

After a dinner meal, mooncakes are served as dessert meant to be enjoyed while gazing at the bright moon against the night sky. Various regions have their own version of mooncakes, but they are usually lightly crusted pastries with various savory and sweet fillings inside. Mooncakes are typically circular to symbolize the full moon, again representing prosperity and luck. Family and friends typically gift boxes of mooncakes to each other to express their best wishes. 

Lanterns

While the adults relax with some hot tea after a rich-tasting dessert, the children often light lanterns outside. Lanterns now come in all shapes and designs — I personally had an airplane and a Hello Kitty one — but the traditional lanterns are typically paper cylinders with a lighted candle inside. The gathering of children to play with lanterns goes back to the theme of reunion of the festival and the bright candles represent wishes for the children to have a bright and successful future.   

Growing up, I always looked forward to 中秋节 because of the celebratory meals, snacks and viewing of the moon at its roundest and brightest with family. Knowing the symbolism behind my favorite sights and foods from the festival, I cherish those childhood memories and look forward to continuing the tradition with my loved ones. 

Contact Emily Lui at [email protected].