Lantern Festival is a traditional Chinese holiday celebrated on the fifteenth day of the Lunar New Year, marking the final day of new year celebrations. This year, Lantern Festival falls on 5 February 2023. Learn about the mythical and historical origins of this vibrant holiday and how it is celebrated.
What is Lantern Festival?
Lantern Festival, also known as Chinese Lantern Festival, Yuan Xiao Festival, Shang Yuan Festival (in China and Taiwan), and Spring Lantern Festival (in China), marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations and the first full moon of the lunar year. On this day, people in Hong Kong conduct rituals to honour ancestors, the primary activity being lantern-lighting.
In auspicious terms, the lighting of lanterns is done in hopes of facilitating peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness throughout society. The round shape of the lanterns symbolise unity and wholeness within the family. Not only do the lit lanterns create a grand sight to see, they also light up the path for new, prosperous beginnings for the rest of the year.
How did Lantern Festival start?
There are a couple of stories associated with the Lantern Festival’s origins. Scholars agree that the historical root lies in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), when Buddhist monks lit lanterns at the beginning of the lunar year to honour Buddha. The reigning emperor, Emperor Ming, was a devout Buddhist and supported this practice. Thus, the emperor’s entire palace was filled with lanterns.
Secondly, a legend says that upon hearing that a village had killed his goose, the Jade Emperor was furious. Hungry for revenge, he planned to burn the village down. A good-natured mythical creature heard of this plan and went to warn the townsfolk, who then lit lanterns to fool the emperor into thinking that the village was already in flames. The tactic worked, and lighting lanterns carried forward as a tradition symbolizing compassion and unity.
How do you celebrate Lantern Festival?
Chinese Lantern Festival is earmarked with celebrations that make a grand spectacle. Normally, the festivities occur at night in order to fully relish the colours of the spectacles.
The obvious activity is the lighting of lanterns. They traditionally come in round shapes, but as the festival goes hand-in-hand with Chinese New Year, the lanterns also come in animal shapes based on the zodiac animal of the year. Sometimes, riddles with messages of wisdom or fortune are written on the lanterns for viewers to crack. Crowds gather to view colourful light installations of what seems like hundreds of hanging lanterns or prosperous symbols like dragons and gold taels put on display in parks. For some, the vibrant display of lights makes this festival almost synonymous with Chinese Valentine’s Day, as it’s a romantic way to spend the evening.
Other celebrations that take place during Lantern Festival are lion and dragon dance performances, firecrackers and fireworks, and uniting with loved ones over a delicious bowl of sweet glutinous rice dumplings (a.k.a. tong yuen).
What significance do these practices have? The dragon is symbolic of good luck and represented at all essential Chinese festivals. The loud noise from firecrackers and fireworks represent protection as legend says their noise scares off demons. Tang yuen soup dumplings filled with sesame, red bean, or peanut paste are eaten with family as their round shape is symbolic of unity.
Lantern festivals in other Asian cultures
Similar holidays to Chinese Lantern Festival are celebrated in other Asian cultures.
Loy Krathong in Thailand is celebrated on the full moon of the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar. This year, the festival will occur on 27 November 2023. The idea behind Loy Krathong is giving thanks to the Goddess of Water and Buddha, as well as asking for forgiveness for consuming too much water during the year. In Bangkok, people go to lakes, rivers, and canals to release lotus-shaped boats decorated with banana leaves, flowers, and candles. In Chiang Mai, people release lanterns into the air in a grand spectacle.
Thadingyut Festival is a festival of lights in Burma. Celebrated over three days in the seventh month of the Burmese calendar (28-30 October 2023 this year), Thadingyut marks Buddha’s descent from heaven. Buddhists welome the Buddha by lighting up the streets and homes with lights or candles, putting on musical shows, and setting off firecrackers.
The Lotus Lantern Festival or Yeondeunghoe in South Korea marks Buddha’s Birthday. Each year in November, hundreds of lanterns are placed on Cheonggycheon Stream in downtown Seoul and traditionally-clothed processions of people carry beautiful lanterns in a street parade. The lanterns carry meanings of well-being and peace for the world.
Toro Nagashi, the Japanese Floating Lantern Festival, occurs in Tokyo over three days in mid-August. This is when people head to rivers to float decorated lanterns on the water and make wishes. This day coincides with Obon Day, celebrated to welcome spirits and ancestors back to their hometown. The lanterns are believed to embody the spirits and help guide their return.
Other traditional Chinese festivals: Lunar New Year — Lunar New Year Fair — Birthday of Che Kung — Chinese Lantern Festival — Kwun Yum Treasury Opening Festival — Ching Ming Festival — Tin Hau Festival — Cheung Chau Bun Festival — Buddha’s Birthday — Birthday of Tam Kung — Dragon Boat Festival — Birthday of Kwan Tai — Qixi Festival — Hung Shing Festival — Hungry Ghost Festival — Mid-Autumn Festival — Monkey King Festival — Birthday of Confucius — Chung Yeung Festival — Winter Solstice Festival.
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