Image/graphic design credit: Tam Tran (@mat.nart)
My fondest memory of the Mid-Autumn Festival is making a lantern out of a milk carton. An annual tradition at my Cantonese school was to get creative with lantern-making and to share them at the festival celebration. My dad had cut the milk carton in half and affixed a small tealight candle inside. I remember spending the entire afternoon meticulously drawing illustrations and adding an array of colours onto a white sticker which I then stuck onto the carton. When I was happy enough with my masterpiece, we attached a wooden chopstick with wires to create a little lantern handle. I beamed with pride as I held it tightly in my small hands.
As an Australian born and raised Chinese, my family played a big role in teaching me about our cultural traditions and preserving them as I grew older.
In 2016, the Census revealed that 1.2 million people of Chinese ancestry lived in Australia, with 25 per cent born in the country. For this 25 per cent, what do cultural traditions mean for them? For most ABCs (Australian Born Chinese), these traditions were learnt either through our parents and family or through Saturday Chinese school classes. Perhaps some may have returned home to celebrate, but for me, memories of the festival lie in my Melbourne home.
What is the MId-Autumn Festival?
The second biggest Chinese festival after Lunar New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. On this night, you will find that the moon is particularly bright and round. Legend has it that if you look closely, you will see Chang’e – the moon goddess – alongside her rabbit companion. Families usually gather to eat mooncake and “shang yue” (admire the moon), as children run around with their brightly lit lanterns.
Growing up celebrating the festival
As an ABC, celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival (or the ‘mooncake’ festival, as I called it) was very different from the stories my parents told about when they were growing up. Nonetheless, it still carried an important meaning for me to connect with my culture. As a kid, it was about making lanterns using Dad’s milk carton cut-out and falling asleep as my parents read me the story behind the festival. As I progressed through Chinese school, it was about reciting the Chinese poet Li Bai‘s poem about the moon, and struggling because I could never pronounce the words correctly with my Australian accent. As I grew older, it was about trying to appreciate the taste of egg yolk in lotus paste mooncakes (which I’m still learning to love).
And now, these days, it’s mostly about family. It’s about choosing the perfect tin of mooncakes to mail to my uncle in Sydney every year. It’s about sitting at the dining table eating mooncake and pomelo while drinking bitter tea to diffuse the sweetness. And I guess it’s also about competing to take the best picture of the moon to share to the family group chat.
My experience celebrating this festival may be far from how families celebrate overseas, but it carries a unique meaning for me nonetheless.
The importance of keeping cultural traditions alive
It always seemed that there were only so many annual festivals that allowed me to really connect with my culture. These cultural festivals do more than just mark a day in the calendar. For me, they tell the rich history of our ancestors’ lives and the value they placed on family and togetherness.
Celebrating these festivals annually, albeit through an ABC lens, is a part of my identity as a Chinese Australian. It has also promoted a sense of unity and connection among my friends of Chinese backgrounds, as we connect through our filtered understanding of the ‘mooncake’ festival. For one of my friends, the festival means spending the day making hundreds of mooncakes with her family. In our own ways, we keep the traditions alive because it’s been reinforced as a part of our cultural identity.
I sometimes wonder about what the significance of this festival would be for me if my parents hadn’t read me bedtime stories about the festival’s origins, or if they hadn’t excitedly decorated the house with lanterns each year, calling my brother and me out to eat mooncakes under the night sky illuminated by the bright moon.
I have my parents to thank, as it’s because of them that I am able to understand this tradition – and any other tradition for that matter – beyond the confines of a textbook.
Meld wishes a happy Mid-Autumn Festival to all those celebrating.