This Tuesday you should tell your Chinese friends, “zhōng qiū jié kuài lè!” (中秋节快乐！). Mouseover the pinyin for the translation, and click the characters for a dictionary with pronunciation sound files.
To the ignorant and mostly innocent foreign bystander, the Moon Festival (中秋节) is when everyone buys and gives mooncakes (月饼 / yuè bǐng), hence the nickname, “the Great Mooncake Exchange” (I’m betting a foreigner made that up). Most Chinese people I’ve talked to say they don’t really like mooncakes, but everyone still exchanges them. I guess it’s like what people in England and Canada used to do with fruitcake, only on a much more massive scale. This year the office gave the staff mooncakes, the apartment complex where the foreigners live gave each room a box of mooncakes, the school gave the teachers mooncakes, the teachers gave us mooncakes, we should have remembered to buy mooncakes to give to the teachers even though they would be destined for re-gifting, in Taibei they have ice-cream mooncakes… and this was all before 10am!
You’re supposed to go outside on 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar with your family and eat mooncakes together while you enjoy the full moon in the crisp, autumn night. If it’s cloudy, then people might save the mooncakes ’til the next night. The downside is, mooncakes don’t taste as cool as they sound (the average mooncake, that is, not the special ice-cream ones). So much potential, but they just aren’t all that. The average moon cake is kind of dry – you need tea with it, weighs almost as much as a hockey puck, and you can smell the oil/preservatives. (That may sound picky, but we were at a friend’s house last weekend trying to figure out what kind of cooking oil he’d bought since we couldn’t recognize any of the characters on the label, and when I smelled it immediately said, “It smells like a mooncake.”) Anyway, inside they can have all manner of stuff from red bean paste to dried pork shavings to an egg yolk to “5 nuts” to mixed fruit pieces, to we don’t even know all what. People have started adding to the traditional varieties, but it seems like they were way more creative about it in Taipei. The outside is usually fancy, with designs and characters used in the molds. So far I’ve found two kinds of regular mooncakes that I really like.
Anyway, there’s a good (real) introduction to the Mid-Autumn Festival, aka Moon Festival, aka Great Mooncake Exchange, at Journal for Intercultural Learning:
The Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节 zhōngqiūjié), also known as the Moon Festival, is a popular celebration of abundance and togetherness, dating back over 3,000 years to China’s Zhou Dynasty. This day is also considered a harvest festival since fruits, vegetables and grain have been harvested by this time and food is abundant…
It’s worth checking out, especially if you have Chinese friends. For Chinese, this is one of the most important holidays of the year.