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The Moon and the Autumn Equinox

by Julie Tortora

The full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox possesses some unusual characteristics. This has inspired peoples of different cultures and different times to celebrate and ritualize its annual appearance.

At this time of year the time gap between sunset and moonrise shortens considerably. This means that the sky continues light after sunset and allows daytime activities in rural areas to continue longer into the evening. In Britain the moon at this time is referred to as the Harvest Moon, because in days gone by farmers would go on harvesting their crops by the light of the moon. The Harvest Moon is seen rising low over the horizon, which lends it a deeper, often orange colour, because it is passing through more atmospheric particles than when it is higher up. It also appears larger to the eye from this angle and so the Harvest Moon appears endowed with beautiful and magical properties.

The Chinese celebrate this time as one of the most important festivals of the year. The 15th of the 8th lunar month is known as the Moon Festival. It is a joyous time of eating and drinking wine, spending time with your lover or family and feeling connected to absent friends on whom the same moon is shining, even though they are far away. Often lanterns are lit and dragon dances are performed. The traditional food is the moon-cake. It has a pastry case decorated with signs and symbols of the festival and contains sweet fillings of nuts and mashed red beans, lotus-seed paste or Chinese dates. In the middle there is often a cooked egg yoke. When you cut into it, it reveals the shape of a yellow moon.

The most famous legend associated with the Moon Festival tells of how once upon a time the earth was lit by ten suns. Usually they took turns in their work but one day all the suns shone together and the earth was parched and there was a terrible drought. The earth was only saved when the brilliant archer Hou Yi managed to shoot down nine of the suns. He was rewarded by the Western Queen Mother, who gave him the elixir of immortality. However, either by mistake or through sabotage, it was his beautiful wife, Chang Er, who drank the elixir and it caused her to fly up in to the air and all the way to the moon. She is still there, unable to return to earth until the rabbit in the moon can create an antidote. In the meantime, Hou Yi is allowed to visit her just once a year, at the time of the mid-autumn moon.

A more political story tells of how during the Yuan dynasty 1280-1368, China was ruled by the Mongolians. The people planned a rebellion and the leaders co-ordinated the action by hiding instructions in the customary moon-cakes at the time of the Moon Festival. The plan worked and the rebels were successful in overthrowing their oppressors.

This year the Moon Festival took place on September 22nd but every year is different, following the phases of the moon. Did you sample any moon-cakes this year? If not, let’s do it next time and connect with one another and absent friends and family everywhere.