Chinese Lantern Festival

Introduction

The Lantern Festival is a traditional Chinese festival originated in Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC). It falls on the first Chinese lunar month which is called Yuan month in old times. It is the first night to see the full moon. Night is called Xiao in mandarin. So, the festival is also called Yuan Xiao Festival.

It is the first important festival after the Chinese Spring Festival for the Chinese people pushing the Chinese New Year celebration to an exciting climax and marking its end. People watch lanterns, fireworks and various performances, guess lantern riddles and eat Yuanxiao (glutinous rice balls with fillings) to celebrate the day.

The Lantern Festival is also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day in the past. In the old times, young girls were usually not allowed to go out. The festival was a good chance for girls going out in the evening to find love when watching lanterns. And it was also a good day for lovers to meet. But now it has no such meanings in most part of China. While in Hong Kong, it is now commercialized as the Valentine's Day.

Fast Facts about Lantern Festival

Chinese Name: 元宵节Yuánxiāo Jié
Alternative Names: Shangyuan Festival, Yuan Xiao Festival, Chinese Valentine's Day
Date: Jan.15th (Chinese Lunar Calendar)
Festival Type: Traditional Chinese Festival
Countries/Areas to Celebrate: China and where the Chinese people live
Traditions and Customs: Watching Lanterns, Appreciating the bright full moon, Enjoying the family reunion, Guessing lantern riddles, Watching fireworks, Performing dragon lantern dance, lion dance and walking on stilts
Festival Food: Yuanxiao (or Tangyuan) - glutinous rice balls with different fillings such as sesame, red-bean or peanut butter paste
Significance: The first night to see the full moon in a year; Marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebration

Date of Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The following chart shows the exact times for the festival from 2017 to 2020:
Year Date of Lantern Festival
2017 February 11th
2018 March 2nd
2019 February 19th
2020 February 8th

Origin and History

There are many origins about the Lantern Festival. One said that it was originated from the Taoism. It is called Shangyuan Festival according to the Daoism. ‘Shang’ refers to the heaven. On the day, families should worship the Heaven Officer of Taoism and decorate the house with lanterns to get safety.

Another said it is related with a Buddhist legend. According to the legend, the fifteenth day of the first Chinese lunar month was the day that Sakyamuni defeated the demons. So to commemorate the day, lanterns should be lighted. Since the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220AD), the custom has been popular. The Emperor Hanmingdi ordered all the temples and families should light lanterns on the evening of the day. From that time on, it has a custom to light lanterns for the festival.

Time to celebrate the festival and customs differ in different periods. In Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), people celebrate it for one day. In Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), the day before and after the festival were also the times to celebrate. In Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD), people had five days to spend the festival. It lasted from the eighth day of the first lunar month to the seventeenth day in Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD). Lighting lanterns is the main custom during the above times. While, in Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 AD), although only three days to celebrate, activities like dragon and lion dances, land-boat dance, walking on stilts were added.

Legendary Story about Lantern Festival

It is said that in ancient times, there was a beautiful bird flew down from the heaven to earth. It was killed by a villager by accident. As the bird was favored by the Jade Emperor in Heaven, after knowing this, he got angry and ordered to burn the village and all the people on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Can't bear to see this, the daughter of the Jade Emperor told this message to the villagers. All the villages were anxious and had no idea after knowing this. Luckily, an old man had suggested that every family hang red lanterns, set off fireworks and firecrackers on the 14th, 15th and 16th day. In this way, the Jade Emperor may thought the villages had been on fire and the villagers were burned to death.

On the evening of 15th day, the Jade Emperor saw the village was ablaze and thought the people had been died. So, he didn't order to burn the village. From that time on, people hang lanterns, set fireworks and firecrackers on the 15th day of the first lunar month every year to celebrate the victory.

Traditions and Customs

Enjoying the family reunion, appreciating the bright full moon, eating Yuanxiao, watching beautiful lanterns, guessing lantern riddles, watching fireworks, performing dragon lantern dance, lion dance and walking on stilts are the main traditions of the festival.

Like the Spring Festival, on the day of the Lantern Festival, all the members will try to go home for a reunion. In the evening, they usually prepare a sumptuous dinner. Among them, Yuanxiao is an indispensable food symbolizing the unity of the family. They are made of sweet rice flour into sticky glutinous balls with fillings. The common fillings are sesame, red-bean and peanut butter paste. In Southern China, it is called Tang Yuan.  

Lanterns in various sizes and shapes will be hung on everywhere including households, shopping malls and streets. Children like to take a small lantern to play outside. In the evening, there are usually lantern shows in most cities adding the festival atmosphere to a great extent. The lanterns are usually in different forms such as animals, flowers, people, buildings and more. The most popular lanterns are those with the zodiac animal of the year (2018 is the Year of the Dog). On the lanterns, there are usually riddles written on a piece of paper. People crowed to guess the riddles and pull them down once have the answers. After checking, if the answer is right, people can get a small gift as a prize.

There are usually performances like dragon and lion dancing, stilt-walking and more in the street to celebrate the festival. On the evening, people will set firecrackers and government usually has fireworks shows. Many people may choose to stay at home to watch the Lantern Festival evening party broadcast on TV.


More Traditional Chinese Festivals:

Chinese Spring Festival      Laba Festival      Dragon Heads-raising Day      Qingming Festival      Ghost Festival      Double Seventh Festival       Dragon Boat Festival         Mid-Autumn Festival      The Double Ninth Festival      Winter Solstice