If you’re looking for a spectacular way to say goodbye to summer, Singapore’s mid autumn festival is an enchanting display of lights, food and festivities.
You’re likely familiar with Asian Festivals such as the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year. However, the Singapore Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated worldwide by ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, is notable not only in its legend and history but its sheer scale. While it is now observed worldwide, to get the authentic flavour and fervour you need to be in the hustle and bustle of true Chinese-culture.
Nothing says being at a south-east Asian event, than finding yourself plunged shoulder-to-shoulder, mid throng in the cacophony, smells and warmth of a nighttime street festival. A trip to the Singapore Mid-Autumn Festival ramps up these vibes and takes on an unearthly feel, which is spot-on, as much of the festival’s significance comes from up above. Held from early September through to October, the Mid -Autumn Festival celebrations are a cultural and historical mish-mash of legend, tradition and modern-day festival fun.
Dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated post-harvest and accompanied by a full moon. The festival included worshipping and thanking mountain deities for a plentiful harvest. Over the years, celebrations sprouted in different directions with some giving thanks to the dragon for bringing enough water to feed the crops, to Emperors hosting lavish parties and banquets.
Central throughout these and still as much so today, is the Chinese’ devout worship to the moon, in particular to Chang’e the mythical Moon Goddess of Immortality.
‘Mid-Autumn’ day falls on the 15th of the 8th lunar month, so while celebrations to the sun take place in Spring, the moon gets its turn in September. A focal point of this is Chang’e the inadvertent Moon Goddess, and wife of legendary hero Hou Yi. The legend takes shape through Hou Yi’s selfless act of saving the planet and its people from being fried alive. At the time of legend, there were not just one but ten suns in the sky. These ‘decem solis’ led to extreme heat and unbearable conditions. Hou Yi shot down one of the suns and, for doing so, was gifted by Wagmu (the Heaven queen) with an elixir that would allow him to ascend to heaven and become a god.
Being a devoted husband, Hou Yi gave the elixir to his wife Chang’e as the ultimate love token. Unfortunately, a few days later, a dastardly Peng Meng (who spied the gift giving) attempted to steal the elixir from Chang’e but, rather than hand it over, she drank it and ascended to heaven.
When a desperate Hou Yi realised his love’s fate, he called out her name and looking skywards, saw her face appear alongside the moon. From then on, Hou Yi and others give offerings to Chang’e, the Goddess of the Moon.
The bright moon and lunar watching are, therefore, central to the Mid-Autumn celebrations. Families traditionally moved their dining tables outdoors and ate and talked under the moonlight. It’s more common now to take the family to the city streets and join the ensemble.
With Chang’e and the moon shining over them, children decorate lanterns representing the moon and walk through towns in a large procession. The playful amongst them will have written riddles, drawn animals or painted their lanterns in bright colours. It’s a common sight to see a small child holding their lantern tightly in one hand and a parent’s hand in the other – open-mouthed and a teensy bit in awe of their environ.
It is customary to bake and if not, at least eat and share ‘Mooncakes’, which are a pastry shaped like a full moon and traditionally filled with bean paste. As Mid-Autumn is historically a time for families, the cakes are sometimes cut up into slices with one for each member.
In more recent times, mooncakes are baked and filled with just about anything (imagine Heston Blumenthal getting his hands on one) but are usually filled with a sweet and sugary mix using lotus paste. As you can imagine, there is significant demand for both novelty and gourmet mooncakes. These are given as gifts between families, friends and work colleagues. No Mid-Autumn festival would be complete without trying a selection of mooncakes.
A ceremonial light-up of hundreds, possibly thousands of lanterns adds to the Mid-Autumn atmosphere. Usually, hand decorated with flowers, patterns and bright colours, the rows of lanterns festooning the streets certainly give the stars a run for their money. The night sky is both bejewelled and bewitching. Try as you might, it is one of those times when even the best of photographers will fail to capture the beauty. Down tools and be ‘in the moment’.
When Is Singapore’s Mid Autumn Festival?
In Singapore’s Chinatown, the Mid Autumn Festival events are held from 8th September – 8th October. In 2018, the events focus on yesteryear and heritage and serve to remind both Singaporeans and visitors about their Chinese forefathers. As well as traditional lanterns and mooncakes, centrepieces are showcasing the vocations of the first Chinese settlers. Dragon dances will take place over the weekend and, uniquely, there will be a World Record attempt at the most number of people wearing an Oriental mask at one time!
For further details about the Mid-Autumn Festival in Singapore visit www.chinatownfestivals.sg
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