For one day each year, families congregate, mooncakes gifts are given, and dragons take to the streets for this traditional celebration

China is not short on colourful, symbolic and hugely important religious and cultural festivals throughout the year. Chinese New Year needs no introduction, but the one that wins the prize for sweet treats is the Mid-Autumn, or Mooncake, Festival. 

A Mid-Autumn Festival dragon dance in Macau

A Mid-Autumn Festival dragon dance in Macau

The strangely named mooncakes have a profound symbolic meaning and are important because of their shape: roundness stands for unity in Chinese culture and its perfect representation is the full moon. In ancient China, poets wrote about the moon to express homesickness and a desire to see loved ones. So every year, on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (normally around mid-September), families would historically come together to give thanks for successful harvests, make offerings to the gods and spend time with relatives.

Senado Square at festival time

Senado Square at festival time

Although successful harvests are less relevant today in urban Macau, families still unite to make offerings. Watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate, pear, persimmon, grapes and other seasonal fruit are placed outside, along with incense, candles and, of course, mooncakes, placed facing the moon. While such moon worshipping is rare in big cities, it continues to take place in older towns and rural areas.

As part of the ritual, the lighting of lanterns serves to accentuate the brightness of the moon. The traditional handmade lanterns are made of bamboo slips and paper, in different shapes and sizes with candles inside. Some come in the shape of star fruit, others as festive food, or they are painted with images such as Chang’e and the rabbit. According to Chinese legend, Chang'e levitated to the moon after overdosing on an elixir of life that was intended for her husband for shooting nine suns out of the sky with his arrows. One of her two companions on the surface of the moon was a rabbit. Even if traditional lanterns have become rarer, with cartoon characters replacing these mythological figures, flickering candlelight adds even more atmosphere to the evening as the lanterns soar.

The Ruins of St Paul's

The Ruins of St Paul's

Mandarin Oriental, Macau's mooncakes

Mandarin Oriental, Macau's mooncakes

Mooncakes themselves date back to the 13th-century Yuan dynasty, when revolutionaries apparently used them to pass on secret messages. These wheat flour pastries contain a rich filling made from egg yolks, sugar and lotus seed paste. They are normally eaten in small wedges, with the cake traditionally cut into pieces to equal the number of people in the family. Accompanied by Chinese tea, there is no more important or symbolic food in the nation's calendar.

Visitors to Macau can experience the vibrant celebrations on this public holiday, which include fire dragon dances, lantern displays and a carnival. The giving of mooncakes is important not only as a symbolic gift for family, but also for business partners, as it signifies wishing them a long and happy life.

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