The annual Lantern Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunisolar year, and marks the final day of the Chinese New Year festivities. During the festival, people get together to celebrate the beginning of Spring by lighting lanterns, watching fireworks and eating yuanxiao (or tangyuan), sweet stuffed glutinous rice dumplings. This year the Lantern Festival falls on Thursday, 5th March.
The main event of the Lantern Festival is the lighting of the lanterns, and this activity originated during the reign of Emperor Hanmingdi (58-75 BC). Historically, the lanterns owned by the majority of the common people were simple with very minimal design. Only the emperor and noblemen had large ornate lanterns. However, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the most prosperous period in Chinese history, the Lantern Festival was celebrated on a much larger scale, and it is at this time that the festival evolved into a country-wide party. It is said that during the reign of Emperor Tangxuanzong, 50,000 lanterns were lit in Xian City, the capital of the Tang Dynasty.
The lanterns are almost always red, as the color is symbolic of good fortune and prosperity in China. Nowadays, the lanterns vary in shape and size, occasionally created in the form of animals, insects, flowers, people and even machines and buildings. Others depict scenes from popular stories teaching traditional values. In Taiwan, the lanterns represent brightness and birth, which is why women who want to be pregnant often walk underneath hanging lanterns while praying for a child.
Origins and customs
The festival, although not a nationwide public holiday, is one of China’s more significant dates, and it can be traced back to the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago.
There are many alternative stories and beliefs relating to the Lantern Festival’s origins.
One story suggests that the holiday is attributed to Taiyi, the ancient god of heaven. The belief is that the God of Heaven controlled the destiny of the human world. He had sixteen dragons at his beck and call, and decided when to inflict drought, storms, famine or pestilence upon humans. Emperor Qinshihuang, who first united China, held the first Lantern Festival to ask Taiyi for good weather and fortune.
Another common explanation for the Lantern Festival is rooted in Taoism. One story centers on the Jade Emperor, whose favorite crane flew down to Earth and was subsequently hunted and killed. The Jade Emperor was furious, and planned a firestorm as retribution. However, the emperor’s daughter was kind and warned the villagers first. A wise man from a neighbouring village suggested that the villagers hang red lanterns outside their homes, make bonfires and light firecrackers, to give the illusion that the village had already burned to the ground. On the day of retaliation, the Jade Emperor was tricked into thinking the village was ablaze, and the villagers escaped without tragedy.
Lantern riddles (cai deng mi)
An essential part of Lantern Festival celebrations include guessing lantern riddles. These riddles are attached to the lanterns and are often very challenging, some similar to English riddles and others based on the construction of Chinese characters or referring to traditional poetry. The person who answers the riddle correctly usually wins a small prize.
Throughout the festival, people eat yuanxiao (or tangyuan), and the Lantern Festival is sometimes referred to as the Yuanxiao Festival. The sticky rice flour dumplings are sweet, often stuffed with red bean paste, sesame paste or crushed peanuts. The name tangyuan in Chinese has a similar pronunciation to tuanyuan which means ‘reunion’, so people believe the dumplings signify union, harmony and happiness for the family. It is also believed that the round shape of the yuanxiao and the bowls in which they are served symbolise family togetherness, and eating the dumplings may bring happiness and good luck in the New Year.