What's the Chinese Lantern Festival? History + Traditions Explained

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You may associate red paper lanterns with the Chinese culture, but you may not know why. Why are these objects so commonly used to decorate Chinese restaurants? Why do you associate red paper lanterns with the Chinese New Year

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Let’s figure out why these objects are so important in the Chinese culture by learning about the Chinese Lantern Festival. You will learn the history and purpose of the festival as well as where it is celebrated. Finally, you will also learn the traditions most commonly associated with the festival.

What is the Lantern Festival in China? 

The Chinese Lantern Festival is called the “Spring Lantern Festival.” This festival should not be confused with other lantern festivals celebrated in Singapore and Malaysia. Those festivals usually occur in the middle part of autumn. 

The Spring Lantern Festival celebrates the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Unlike the one night of fun that usually occurs to celebrate the new year in the United States, the Chinese celebrate for 15 days when a new year begins. The Lantern Festival is the last day of the celebrations. 

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History

Since the Lantern Festival has such a long history, there are some discrepancies in its origin. 

Some say that the festival was first celebrated during the Han Dynasty. Buddhist monks would light lanterns on this particular night to honor Buddha. The general population mimicked this practice, and the festival was born. 

Others say that the festival’s origins tell the story of an emperor who became angry at the townspeople for killing his favorite goose. To punish the people of the town, the emperor threatened to burn it. A fairy visited the townspeople and told them to light lanterns that night. The emperor saw the lit lanterns, assumed the town was already on fire, and saw no need to intervene. Each year, the townspeople celebrated being saved from destruction by lighting lanterns. 

Other versions of that story say that the emperor was angry when his favorite crane was killed, and the emperor’s daughter warned the villagers to fake a fire with lanterns and fireworks. 

Another story says that the original festival was used to assist the spirits of deceased family members. The dead were thought to return during the New Year celebrations to visit their family still on Earth. The lanterns were lit at the end of the 15 days to guide the souls of the dead back to their homes.

One last story says that a maid working in the emperor’s home wanted to go home for the Chinese New Year celebrations. She told her employer that the God of Fire had visited her and told her that he planned to burn down the city. The emperor, worried that this would happen, mimicked the fire. While everyone was lighting lanterns, the maid snuck home to be with her family. 

Purpose

Regardless of its origin, the festival has survived for thousands of years. The festival is said to promote reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness. 

Where you can celebrate

The Lantern Festival is celebrated all over the world, but each region celebrates it a little bit differently. Some areas are known for taking a modern twist on the celebrations. 

For example, in China’s Sichuan Province, the Lantern Festival is held each year at Culture Park. There, a lantern in the shape of a golden dragon spews fireworks from its mouth. Other cities have electric and neon lanterns. 

The largest Lantern Festival is in Nanjing. Thousands of lanterns are hung along the Qinhuai River and the Confucian Temple.

What Is the Purpose of the Chinese Lantern Festival? 

No matter the origin story of the Chinese Lantern Festival that you subscribe to, the purpose of the festival is celebratory. There are several reasons why it is such an important festival.

For one, it marks the first full moon in the Chinese calendar and the return of spring. 

The Lantern Festival also promotes “reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness.” The round shape of the yuanxiao or tangyuan balls is supposed to symbolize unity within the family. 

There are also religious aspects of the festival, which is important to Buddhist believers. 

It’s little wonder that the Chinese Lantern Festival is such a big deal. It celebrates the physical world, family, and the spiritual world all at once. 

When Does the Lantern Festival Take Place?

The Lantern Festival takes place on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. It marks the end of 15 days of celebration that occurs at the beginning of the new year. The lantern takes place during Shangyuan or the first full moon of the year. 

The Spring Lantern Festival takes place every year in February. The exact date is dependent on the phases of the moon. 

How Do You Celebrate the Lantern Festival? 

Since there are so many different origin stories and ways to commemorate the event, what does it mean to celebrate a Lantern Festival? Here are what most Lantern Festivals seem to have in common. 

Food and drink

Food and drink play an essential role in the Chinese Lantern Festival. Everyone enjoys sweet glutinous rice balls (Yuánxiāo jié in Chinese). A variety of fillings is placed in the balls. The round shape of the food symbolizes wholeness and family unity while it is also meant to remind revelers about the image of the full moon. 

This food is such a vital part of the festival that some call the lantern festival the Yuanxiao Festival. Yuanxiao, of course, is the name for the filled rice balls. 

Festival goers drink wine during the Lantern Festival. The type of wine depends upon the region or province. Some drink “Qinghong wine,” while people in other areas drink what is called “festival wine.” People in Shaoxing drink “Yuanhong wine,” while others drink “lantern wine.”

Regardless of the type of wine, drinking it is meant to give the recipient luck and health in the new year. 

Lantern shows

One can’t have a lantern festival without having a lantern show. The lanterns are different shapes and colors. Some are elaborate, and some are simple. 

The elaborate lanterns may be made into the shape of animals, such as horses, cranes, crabs, elephants, and fish. Some of the lanterns are in the form of mythical beasts like dragons and phoenixes. Still, other elaborate lanterns are made in the shape of plants and flowers or architectural patterns. 

While some of the lanterns may have been made merely as decoration, other shapes are symbolic. For example, some lanterns symbolize people letting go of their past in the hopes of having a healthy and happy future. 

Even though not every lantern is red, many of them are. Red symbolizes good fortune. 

Dragon Dance

You probably are familiar with a traditional Dragon Dance. In this dance, a line of people holds a dragon costume over their heads to mimic the look of the mythical creature with a long body. Drums are played while the dragon dances. 

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Lion Dance

Besides a traditional Dragon Dance, you may also see a Lion Dance during the Lantern Festival. In some areas, the intricate dance is the most critical element. In other areas, it is more important that the lion looks and moves like the actual animal. 

Riddles

One popular activity of the Lantern Festival is the guessing of riddles. The riddles were written on a small piece of paper and pasted to a colorful lantern.

If someone has an answer to the puzzle, he or she would pull the paper off the lantern and share the guess. Those who answer the riddles correctly earn a small gift. 

Goldfish 

One Lantern Festival tradition involves catching goldfish from a bowl with a paper net. Those who catch a goldfish can take it home as a prize. 

Radish carving

Some Chinese children carve the inner tubing of an Oriental radish, similar to the American custom of carving a pumpkin during Halloween. 

Fireworks

Fireworks are a huge part of the Lantern Festival celebrations. 

A day of love

Some Chinese associate the Lantern Festival with a day of love, similar to our Valentine’s Day. A record of older traditions says that the day was traditionally spent with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Stilts and acrobatics

Acrobatic skills are important in China. During the Lantern Festival, it is common to see people walking on stilts and performing tumbling feats. 

Interesting Facts About the Chinese Lantern Festival

We’ve given you an overview of the Chinese Lantern Festival, but you need to see it for yourself. Here are some more interesting facts about the festival that may intrigue you so much that you book a flight to China at the end of next winter.

The Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the new zodiac year

If you’ve ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant, you are probably familiar with the zodiac years. The 12 years of the zodiac cycle are represented by animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. 

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One-sixth of the world’s population celebrates the Chinese New Year

Even though this statistic may feel exaggerated, it is probably on the conservative side. After all, the Chinese New Year (and Lantern Festival) isn’t only celebrated in mainland China, but it is also observed in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, and some other Asian countries. You will also find Chinese Lantern Festivals at most of the major cities throughout the world. 

The Chinese New Year is the most extended public holiday in the country

The Chinese New Year is a busy travel time. Many employees have at least a week off of work, and students are given a one-month vacation. Because of this common break, it is common for people to return home during this time for family reunions. 

If you are traveling to China in January or February, you might have difficulty booking transportation. It is estimated that nearly three billion people travel by plane, train, bus, or ship during this time.

People greet each other by saying “Guo Nian Hao” 

If you will be attending a Chinese New Year celebration, you might want to learn how to greet others. Learn how to pronounce “Guo Nian Hao” from this sweet little girl in a YouTube video

Children receive gifts in red envelopes

Instead of trading wrapped gifts as many do at Christmas, children in China receive red envelopes filled with “lucky” money during the Chinese New Year. Why is the money “lucky?” Perhaps it’s considered lucky because the children are allowed to spend the money any way they see fit. 

The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations

All good things must come to an end. When it is time for the Lantern Festival, all New Year’s decorations must be taken down, and life returns to normal. While it is considered taboo to wear black or white clothes during this celebratory period, that ends with the Lantern Festival. 

Everyone becomes one year older during the Chinese New Year

Birthdays tend to be celebrated differently in China than how we celebrate them in the United States. According to “Culture Trip,” a year is added to a person’s age on their first Lunar New Year’s Day.

Walking under a lantern brings good luck for women wishing to become pregnant

Some Chinese women are known to pray for a child as they walk under a lantern during the festival. 

Experience Lantern Festival

If you would like to experience a Chinese Lantern Festival without traveling to China, look for events hosted by a local college or Asian-American group. Some American cities host Lantern Festivals as well. New York has a Lantern Festival each year in Central Park. 

Do you enjoy learning about holiday traditions around the world? If so, you may like to read about the Hungry Ghost Festival or the Qingming Festival?

Besides reading about holiday traditions from around the world, you may also find it interesting to research where your holiday traditions originated.


Sources

  1. “10 Facts You Should Know About Chinese New Year.” Travel China Guide. travelchinaguide.com
  2. “Chinese Lantern Festival.” Center for Global Education. Chapman University. 7 February 2019. blogs.chapman.edu
  3. “The Lantern Festival.” blogs.uoregon.edu

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