Lantern Festival is a traditional Chinese holiday celebrated on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, marking the final day of new year celebrations. This year, Lantern Festival falls on February 24, 2024. Learn about the mythical and historical origins of this vibrant holiday and how it is celebrated.

What is Lantern Festival?

red lanterns hang from cherry blossom tree
Chinese Lantern Festival marks the beginning of springtime (© mrfiza via Canva)

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 go out to admire the lantern decorations and solve riddles on the lanterns.

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.

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How did Lantern Festival start?

riddles on chinese red lanterns
Solving riddles on the lanterns is a traditional activity to do during Lantern Festival (© Thai Liang Lim via Canva)

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.

See also
Chinese New Year: History, Dates, Zodiac And Traditions

How do you celebrate Lantern Festival?

lantern festival activities
People gather in the evening to view the lanterns (© Lih Jing Lim via Flickr)

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.

tangyuan sweet glutinous rice dumplings
Sweet glutinous rice dumplings, or tang yuan, symbolize unity and togetherness (© Romiximage via Canva)

Another celebrations that take place during Lantern Festival is uniting with loved ones over a delicious bowl of sweet glutinous rice dumplings (a.k.a. tang yuan). Tang yuan soup dumplings filled with sesame, red bean, or peanut paste are eaten with family as their round shape is symbolic of unity.

See also
13 Lunar New Year Foods & Snacks That Brings Luck In The New Year

Lantern festivals in other Asian cultures

bright lanterns in the sky for loy krathong
Thailand’s floating light festival (© Rachandewwa via Canva)

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 November 16, 2024. 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 (October 16-18, 2024 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.

lantern decoration during lotus lantern festival in korea
Lanterns decorate a Seoul Buddhist temple during Yeondeunghoeactnowone via Canva)

The Lotus Lantern Festival or Yeondeunghoe in South Korea marks Buddha’s Birthday. Each year in May, 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.

Interested about other traditional Chinese Festivals? Explore our Culture guides to discover and learn more.

See also
20 Important Traditional Chinese Festivals & Cultural Events In Hong Kong

Header image credits: kowit1982 via Canva

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