Some families called the occasion the Mid-Autumn Festival. Others call it the Moon Festival. Still others referred to it as the Mooncake Festival. But whatever it is called it is a day when families reunite to feast and frolic, play games, sing songs and tell Mid-Autumn stories and legends about the delicious, round hopia or Mooncake or unity cake.
Mooncakes or hopia come in various sizes and flavors. Some are bite-size while others are as big as saucers. The stuffing is no longer limited to brown sugar but might also be made of mung beans, sweetened gourd or candied coconut. Some mooncakes have pork, ham, salted eggs or nuts, almonds, dried melon seeds, sesame seeds and preserved fruits.
It was said that only the elite could afford eating the special mooncakes. But literature dating back from the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) mentioned mooncakes as popular fare for mid-autumn family gatherings.
It seemed natural for Chinese families to be gathering together after the autumn harvest. Accrding to Mario Miclat, to climax their days of toil, peasants would prepare good food and wine on the night of the full moon. Aside from the mooncakes and round fruits, they also offered boild taro roots, snails, and seed grains to Chang’e, the goddess of the Moon and to Shen Nong, the God of agriculture. Before partaking of the food set on tables outside the house, they light candles and incense for their ancestors.
Family gatherings such as this called for various games, with winners getting favors, usually mooncakes, and losers giving a forfeit. Forfeits may involve downing a bog cup of wine, singing a song, or not being able to taste the best mooncake.
Usually, one is asked to tell a story. In this manner, children learn about many Chinese legends and folk tales.
Legend of the Unity Cake and First Mid-Autumn Celebration
A legend about the hopia or mooncake is one of the famous Mid-Autumn Tales shared by Mario Miclat. According to the legend, a long time ago, two brothers who could not settle their differences decided to part ways. One went to live north, the other in the south. Their absence made their mother very lonely. Send her husband to ask them to come home for a reunion.
One day after the autumn harvest, the elder brother came from the north bringing along some flour. The younger brother also came from the south and gifted her mother with brown sugar. To please both sons, she prepared a cake from the northern flour and stuffed it brown sugar from the south.
As the moon was bright, the father decided to bring the table out into the garden where the family shared the meal under the full moon. She named what she baked as “yuebing” or Mooncake (in the dialect of the southern Fujian province, it is sometimes called as it is known in Manila as the hopia or unity cake).
The father wishes that his two sons reconcile. If they could not live together under one roof, surely they could make it a point to come back home even once a year when the harvest is over. In her glee, the mother made sure that come next autumn, she would gather fresh fruits to serve the family. Like her mooncake, she chose round ones such as pomelos, apples, oranges, and dates.
The neighborhood noticed the annual family gathering held under the bright moon after the autumn harvest, and they decided to do the same. And so every year when the moon is at its brightest, on the 15th day of the eight month of the lunar calendar, Chinese families gather around tables full of round fruits and mooncakes.
Part four of a series on Filipino bread traditions.
Information source: From Mid-Autumn Tales by Mario Miclat