In the Chinese lunar calendar tradition, the seventh, eighth and ninth months comprise autumn. During fall, the skies are commonly clear and cloudless and the nights crisp and sharp. In these night sky conditions, the moon appears to be the brightest. The fifteenth day of the eighth month is the middle of autumn, thus the festival celebrates the moon's appearance as the brightest and most beautiful throughout the year.
The Mid-Autumn Holiday Period
Students and workers receive a day or two off for the Mid-Autumn Holiday, depending on when it falls. Sometimes the holiday falls close to the October Holiday that celebrates the founding of the People's Republic of China (October 1) so in that case it is combined together.
History of the Festival
Enjoying the moon is an ancient tradition in China going back nearly 1,400 years. The moon was associated with rejuvenation and it is common for people to worship and give offerings to the moon. The harvest moon celebration appears to have occurred since the Zhou Dynasty (ending in 221 BC) times, it was during the early Tang Dynasty (618–907) that the celebration became a festival. Becoming grander over time, by the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) , the mid-autumn festival was second only in importance to the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).
You can read a few of the historical legends about the origin of the festival.
Traditional Activities During the Mid-Autumn Festival
Besides moon-gazing, Chinese families celebrate by getting together and eating. Boiled peanuts, slices of taro, rice gruel, fish and noodles are all traditional dishes to eat during the festival, but none of these takes the place of the famous moon cake. Ubiquitously on sale in every supermarket and hotel, moon cakes are now a highly prized commodity. Companies use the festival as a time to thank clients with boxes of moon cakes.
Moon cakes are typically round, symbolizing the full round moon of the mid-autumn festival. They are usually made with four egg yolks, representing the four phases of the moon, and are sweet, filled with sweet bean or lotus seed paste. There are savory types as well and these days, you can even get them from Haagen Dazs.
According to one legend, it was with the help of the moon cake that the Ming Dynasty established. Rebels used the festival as a method to convey their plans for revolt. They ordered the baking of special cakes to commemorate the festival. But what the Mongol leaders didn't know was that secret messages were tucked into the cakes and distributed to allied rebels. On the night of the festival, the rebels successfully attacked, overthrowing the Mongol government and establishing a new era, the Ming Dynasty.