What is the Lantern Festival?

The final part of Spring Festival, the Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāo jié 元宵节) falls this year on February 26th, the fifteenth day of the celebrations. Although it’s not a public holiday, it is still widely celebrated, especially in southern China and among the diaspora.

What’s this holiday all about and how can you celebrate it? Read on to find out!

Lantern in the shape of a dog in Tianjin

The origins of the lantern festival are unclear.  One legend is set in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), when Buddhism had just recently arrived in China. On the 15th day of the first lunar month, the monks in Buddhist temples lit many lanterns as they observed Uposatha, a day of cleansing and re-dedication to the practice of Buddhism. Emperor Ming, in an effort to popularise Buddhism, ordered that all households, including the imperial palace, should light lanterns. Another story is that, after a period of great political upheaval, Emperor Wen, one of China’s most benevolent emperors, designated the 15th day of the first lunar month as a day to celebrate peace.

Combined with other tales and traditions, these gradually developed into a folk custom and became incorporated into the Spring Festival celebrations.

Lantern in the shape of a dragon in Beijing

On the lantern festival, people traditionally lit lanterns, went to public lantern displays, solved riddles and ate tangyuan. There were also performances from acrobats, dragon and lion dancers and musicians. The festival was quite noisy and wild, as suggested by an ancient name for it: 闹元宵 (nào yuán xiāo) which means wild/exciting lantern festival!

Solving riddles livened up lantern displays with intellectual challenges. Chinese riddles are difficult to translate as they usually depend on puns, historical figures, characters, idioms or places to make sense. But here’s a simple example: These tall, thin brothers go everywhere and do everything together, and always avoid soup. Who are they? (Answer below.)

On this evening, women – who traditionally had to stay at home – were allowed to take part in the festivities with the men. According to legend, this lead to romantic encounters on the evening, so it is sometimes called China’s ‘true Valentine’s Day’ (as opposed to the Qixi Festival on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month).

Tangyuan (Tāngyuán 汤圆) are round dumplings made of glutinous rice flour with sweet fillings, traditionally sesame paste. The name sounds similar to the word for ‘reunion’ (tuán yuan 团圆).  Their round shape represents the full moon (since the 15th day falls on the first full moon of the new year); also unity and the coming together of the family at this time of year, as well as hope for togetherness in the new year. 

In some parts of China they are known as yuanxiao, hence the Chinese name of the festival (Yuánxiāo jié 元宵节). Some people still make their own at home, filled with red bean or sesame paste, but they are now widely available in supermarkets with all manner of fillings including kiwi, orange and chocolate!

How can you celebrate the festival this year? Unfortunately, very few lantern displays are held in Beijing in a normal year, and they are even less likely this year! If we hear of any events we’ll update this page. But not to worry, you can celebrate at home! Buy your own paper or fabric lanterns on Taobao. Kids can paint the paper ones and hang riddles underneath for other family members to solve! Tangyuan are found in the freezer section of any supermarket, and if you’re interested you could even make your own following a YouTube tutorial! 

Riddle answer: Chopsticks!

How will you be celebrating Lantern Festival this year? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys

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