The Harvest Moon Festival, commonly referred to as the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), is a celebration rich in Chinese lore. It involves the tragically romantic story of Chang’e, the moon goddess and her mortal husband Hou Yi. It is celebrated extravagantly with big dinners and family reunions. In many parts of Asia, there are children’s lantern parades, and lion dances. But ask any Chinese person about the festival, and they will tell you it’s all about the mooncakes.

Why? Because this is the time of year when the mooncakes are produced. Often baked and packaged lavishly, the mooncakes are meant as gifts. Families share the delicious confection with each other to celebrate the holiday with joy as they honor the good fortune of the harvest season.

Mooncakes are round like the moon, stamped in elaborate decorations, and rich with egg yolk in the recipe. One (a day) is usually enough to satisfy the craving for this yearly treat. They come with a sweet paste filling inside, often red bean or lotus seed paste, although many other varieties of the filling, such as black or white sesame seed, are also available. One such favorite is mooncakes baked with a salted duck egg yolk in the center, again symbolizing the moon. As a cake, they are usually individually proportioned at approximately four inches each in diameter, but some chefs in China will attempt extremely large mooncakes to commemorate the holiday. In whatever way they are made, they are delicious, and always a welcome gift.

While mooncakes make the Mid-Autumn Festival a special one in Chinese culture, the festival itself was always an importantone to the Chinese ancestors. It was held to celebrate their harvest and all their hard work in the last days of the season before the changing of the weather. The specific day is determined by the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The Mid-Autumn Festival is set to be the 15th day of the eighth month. Always on a full moon, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls this year on September, 24.

The legend behind the festival is also a sad and beautiful one. Chang’e was the wife of a famed archer Hou Yi, and they livedat a time long ago when the Earth was plagued by ten suns. Yi shot down nine of the suns with his arrows, leaving one remaining for light and warmth. His heroic actions were seen by one of the immortals, who chose to give Yi an elixir for immortality. But Yi did not want immortality without his wife to join him, so he kept the elixir in his home. A subordinate of his, Peng Meng, learnt of the elixir and tried to force Chang’e to give it to him, but she swallowed it instead. Flying into the sky with her new immortal powers, she chose the moon as her home. When Yi returned and heard of what had happened, he grieved and offered fruits in devotion to his wife. When the people observed his gifts, they followed suit and worshipped with him.

Truly a special time in the Chinese calendar, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a welcome opportunity to get together with friends and families and share the joy of the season together – with mooncakes!