The Mid-Autumn Festival is a traditional East Asian holiday that's celebrated with mooncakes and a fanciful picnic under the moon. Here's how you can involve your children.

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An image of a woman making moon cakes.
Credit: Getty Images.

Growing up in an Asian family in America, I loved how the Mid-Autumn Festival would descend like a stealth holiday. Mooncakes would magically appear in the kitchen.

Though it's the second most important celebration in East Asian culture after Chinese New Year, it was low-key and less fuss than other festive occasions. The key takeaway for the harvest celebration is to be grateful for the simple things in life, like how we can rely on the moon to rise into the dark abyss of the charcoal sky every evening, just like clockwork.

Even if most of us don't cultivate our own crops to make our meals, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also a reminder to my family that food isn't something to be taken for granted. Today, one out of five kids in the U.S. still struggle with food insecurity.

Every year, my daughters surprise me with their anticipation for the holiday. They weren't born in Taiwan, like I was, and they've quit Chinese school (much to my dismay—sigh), but they love to eat mooncake. My 16-year-old daughter, Ella, says, "It's the kick-off for the rest of the holidays that are coming, like Halloween and Christmas, so it's kind of exciting."

When is the Mid-Autumn Festival?

Mid-Autumn Festival 2021 falls on September 21. Also known as the Moon Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest celebration on par with Thanksgiving. It falls on the 15th day of the eighth Chinese lunar month, which means it occurs in September or October. The holiday doesn't take place on the same day every year nor does it coincide exactly on the night of a full moon, though the luminescent orb will likely be quite large on a clear evening at that time of the year.

The Legend Behind the Mid-Autumn Festival

The story about how the celebration began dates back to the Han Dynasty with the legend of the moon goddess, Chang'e. Her husband, Hou Yi, was a great archer who had a powerful bow. One year, 10 suns appeared, causing a massive drought, and killing crops. Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns, saving the people from starvation.

In appreciation, Hou Yi received a magical elixir that granted him eternal life. He gave it to his wife, Chang'e, but when an intruder tried to take it, she drank the potion herself. She then flew to the moon to live forever with only her white rabbit to keep her company. Her husband missed her so much that he set out her favorite food, mooncakes. Other people felt sorry for him and joined him in paying homage to her with mooncakes, and that's how the Moon Festival began.

How to Celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with Your Kids

Mooncakes are a must

A Mid-Autumn Festival isn't complete without a mooncake or three. I spent most Chinese holidays in small communities where I was one of the few Asian kids in town. Mooncakes were often the only sign that the celebration was coming. Each year, we ate the special treat without fail.

It's a pastry filled with dense sweet red bean or lotus seed paste, often with a salted egg yolk in the center. Traditionally, the desserts are round to represent the shape of the moon, but you'll often find rectangular-shaped mooncakes as well. Some families make mooncakes from scratch, but you can find mooncakes in bakeries and grocery stores at this time of the year.

The author's daughter eating a mooncake.
The author's daughter eating a mooncake.
| Credit: Courtesy of Helen I. Hwang

Picnic under the moonlight

We might've all had picnics under the sun but what about under the moon? A favorite tradition is gathering with loved ones to gorge on an evening meal alfresco to admire the beauty of the celestial body (and see if we can spot the moon goddess and her pet bunny).

Don't hesitate to get creative. Make it a game to create an entire dinner made of round shapes to represent the moon. Baos, or steamed round buns filled with pork or chicken, are scrumptious. Send your kids on a scavenger hunt in the kitchen to find round things to eat, like oranges or potatoes. Scoop out watermelon spheres. We might even order a pizza. What's important for me is to keep it fun so my kids stay excited for a holiday that celebrates their ethnicity.

Read books about the moon

Every year, I pull out my books about the Mid-Autumn Festival to read with my kids. Thankfully, there are a few good ones out there like Amy Tan's The Moon Lady and Jillian Lin's Moon Festival Wishes.

No one has written more brilliant books about the moon than the award-winning author, Grace Lin, who's penned Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Thanking the Moon, and A Big Mooncake for Little Star. "The Moon Festival is my favorite Asian holiday," says Lin. "All the characteristics that I associate with the moon and the Moon Festival—quiet joy, love, peace, and beauty—are the same traits I try to imbue in all my books—even the ones not about the moon!"

Decorate with lanterns

Colorful lanterns are essential holiday décor for Chinese celebrations. Kids can make paper lanterns themselves, using toilet paper rolls and construction paper. You can hang festive lamps outside and inside. Light a sky lantern with a wish written on it and watch it float up into the night toward the moon goddess.

An image of a child and their grandparent painting a lantern.
Credit: Getty Images.

Keep passing down traditions

Keeping the Mid-Autumn Festival uncomplicated is what makes the celebration so endearing. Though I didn't grow up with a lot of festival fanfare, I appreciate the delicious mooncake as a uniquely distinctive dessert I enjoyed once a year. I hope to pass at least that one tradition to my kids, even as their Chinese language skills fade away.