Sunday, October 15, 2006


China has three major holiday seasons. The smallest and least significant is May Day on the first of May. This is the traditional Labor Day in Communist countries. The largest and most significant is New Year’s Day. Unlike New Year’s Day in the U.S. which is tied to our Gregorian calendar, New Year’s in China is tied to the lunar calendar (see any placemat in a Chinese restaurant). New Year’s usually comes in late January and is cause for several weeks of celebration including the break between semesters at the universities.

The third holiday season includes the fall holidays of National Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival. National Day is the first of October and celebrates the creation of a unified China under the communist regime of Mao Zedong in 1949. National Day is the equivalent of our 4th of July. This year National Day fell on a Sunday. Saturday night we heard, but did not see, a fireworks display in Beibei. The next day we wandered about campus and noted that the campus post office and numerous campus banks were open. About the only thing different from any other Sunday was that all buses were decorated with crossed Chinese flags on their windshields. In short, National Day is not much of a celebration.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is another matter. This holiday is tied to the lunar calendar—it is celebrated on the full moon of the eighth lunar month. This year it fell on Oct. 6 (Friday). Most societies have some form of harvest festival—Thanksgiving in the U.S. and Canada—and in China it is the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is a time for families to get together, tell stories, and eat traditional foods. As a result, there is a lot of travel with intense congestion at travel depots. For instance, we had to wait for an hour to get a bus out of Beibei—usually there is no wait at all.

The mid-autumn full moon is the biggest, brightest full moon of the year—we call it the harvest moon. We sing about it, but we do not formally celebrate it. In China families gather on the night of the full moon and exchange gifts (usually moon cakes) as a sign of familial love. If family members are unable to be together, they can look at the full moon and know that their loved ones are doing the same so the bond of love is shared in the moment of the full moon.

As with most family-centered celebrations, kids are very important. We saw many girls in the 5-10 year old category dressed up in moon-goddess costumes including little headdresses with many sparkles on them. Also popular are balloons (for the younger set) in the obvious shape of a full-moon.

Among the adults, the two most popular gifts are moon cakes and fruit. The Southwest University gave each employee, including my wife and me, a gift box of moon cakes and a carton (the size of a ream of paper) of fresh pears. We had a hard time unloading two cartons of pears as no one could understand why we would want to give away so precious a gift.

To fully understand moon cakes one must be aware of a significant difference between American cooking methods and those of China (and Asia in general). Kitchens here, in restaurants and in homes, do not have ovens. As a consequence, breads and cakes (not to mention Thanksgiving turkeys) are very scarce and something of a luxury. There is one company that serves Beibei with baked goods in very fancy franchise stores with relatively high prices. At these stores we can buy breakfast rolls, bread (sometimes), and cookies. Cakes are a special order item and are purchased for weddings, birthdays, and the like. Consequently, eating moon cakes, or baked pastries, to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival is a big deal. These small cakes vary in size from a hockey puck up to a 5x2-inch circular cake. They are (as are all baked goods in China) very sweet and are frequently stuffed with fruits or meats. The real classic moon cake has a boiled egg yolk stuffed inside of it that looks just like the full moon. For those of modest incomes, you can get unleavened moon cakes that are about the size of an Oreo cookie and are mostly lard and flour.

About two weeks ago stores started stocking up on moon cakes. They were everywhere. The most popular presentation is a fancy gift box with an assortment of different moon cakes (see photo, this is what SWU gave us). As you look at people traveling for the holidays, many are carrying one or more gift boxes of moon cakes and/or fruit to their destinations. Frankly, I don’t know how all of the moon cakes are ever going to be eaten and I expect there are a number of Chinese children with sore tummies on the morning after the night before.

According to a newscast on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival, in years past moon cake gift boxes included a bottle of whiskey or wine which made the gift boxes very expensive as a good bottle of whiskey can run $50 and up. This year the government has outlawed this practice so the gift boxes would be cheaper and available to a wider range of consumers. There was no hint in the broadcast that temperance had anything to do with the new government rules. In any case, the celebration continued although in Beibei it rained all night and we were unable to see the moon—unrequited love.


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