The Lantern Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month, and traditionally ends the Chinese New Year period. In 2017 it falls on February 11.
Lantern Festival Facts
- Popular Chinese name: 元宵节 Yuánxiāojié /ywen-sshyaoww jyeah/ ‘first night festival’
- Alternative Chinese name: 上元节 Shàngyuánjié /shung-ywen-jyeah/ ‘first first festival’
- Date: Lunar calendar month 1 day 15 (February 11, 2017)
- Importance: ends China’s most important festival, the Spring Festival
- Celebrations: enjoying lanterns, lantern riddles, eating tangyuan a.k.a. yuanxiao (ball dumplings in soup), lion dances, dragon dances, etc.
- History: about 2,000 years
- Greeting: Happy Lantern Festival! 元宵节快乐！Yuánxiāojié kuàilè! /ywen-sshyaoww-jyeah kwhy-luh/
The Lantern Festival is Very Important
The Lantern Festival is the last day (traditionally) of China’s most important festival, Spring Festival (春节 Chūnjié /chwn-jyeah/ a.k.a. the Chinese New Year festival). After the Lantern Festival, Chinese New Year taboos are no longer in effect, and all New Year decorations are taken down.
The Lantern Festival is also the first full moon night in the Chinese calendar, marking the return of spring and symbolizing the reunion of family. However, most people cannot celebrate it with their families, because there is no public holiday for this festival.
When Did the Lantern Festival Begin?
The Lantern Festival can be traced back to 2,000 years ago.
In the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), Emperor Hanmingdi was an advocate of Buddhism. He heard that some monks lit lanterns in the temples to show respect to Buddha on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Therefore, he ordered that all the temples, households, and royal palaces should light lanterns on that evening.
This Buddhist custom gradually became a grand festival among the people.
How Do Chinese Celebrate the Lantern Festival?
According to China’s various folk customs, people get together on the night of the Lantern Festival to celebrate with different activities.
As China is a vast country with a long history and diverse cultures, Lantern Festival customs and activities vary regionally, including lighting and enjoying (floating, fixed, held, and flying) lanterns, appreciating the bright full moon, setting off fireworks, guessing riddles written on lanterns, eating tangyuan, lion dances, dragon dances, and walking on stilts.
The most important and prevalent customs are enjoying lanterns, guessing lantern riddles, eating tangyuan, and lion dances.
Lighting and Watching Lanterns
Lighting and appreciating lanterns is the main activity of the festival. When the festival comes, lanterns of various shapes and sizes (traditional globes, fish, dragons, goats! — in 2015, up to stories high!) are seen everywhere including households, shopping malls, parks, and streets, attracting numerous viewers. Children may hold small lanterns while walking the streets.
The lanterns’ artwork vividly demonstrates traditional Chinese images, such as fruits, flowers, birds, animals, people, and buildings.
In the Taiwanese dialect, the Chinese word for lantern (灯 dēng) is pronounced similarly to (丁 dīng), which means ‘a new-born baby boy’. Therefore lighting lanterns means illuminating the future and giving birth.
Lighting lanterns is a way for people to pray that they will have smooth futures and express their best wishes for their families. Women who want to be pregnant would walk under a hanging lantern praying for a child.
Guessing Lantern Riddles
Guessing (solving) lantern riddles, starting in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), is one of the most important and popular activities of the Lantern Festival. Lantern owners write riddles on paper notes and pasted them upon the colorful lanterns. People crowd round to guess the riddles.
If someone thinks they have the right answer, they can pull the riddle off and go to the lantern owner to check their answer. If the answer is right, there is usually a small gift as a prize.
As riddle guessing is interesting and informative, it has become popular among all social strata.
The lion dance is one of the most outstanding traditional folk dances in China. It can be dated back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280).
Ancient people regarded the lion as a symbol of bravery and strength, and thought that it could drive away evil and protect people and their livestock. Therefore, lion dances are performed at important events, especially the Lantern Festival, to ward off evil and pray for good fortune and safety.
The lion dance requires two highly-trained performers in a lion suit. One acts as the head and forelegs, and the other the back and rear legs. Under the guidance of a choreographer, the “lion” dances to the beat of a drum, gong, and cymbals. Sometimes they jump, roll, and do difficult acts such as walking on stilts.
In one lion dance, the “lion” moves from place to place looking for some green vegetables, in which red envelopes with money inside are hidden. The acting is very amusing and spectators enjoy it very much.
Nowadays, the lion dance has spread to many other countries with overseas Chinese, and it is quite popular in countries like Malaysia and Singapore. In many Chinese communities of Europe and America, Chinese people use lion dances or dragon dances to celebrate every Spring Festival and other important events.
Eating Tangyuan (Yuanxiao)
Eating tangyuan is an important custom of the Lantern Festival. Tangyuan (汤圆 tāngyuán /tung-ywen/ ‘soup round’) are also called yuanxiao when eaten for the Lantern Festival, after the festival.
These ball-shaped dumplings made of glutinous rice flour, with different fillings are stuffed inside, usually sweet, such as white sugar, brown sugar, sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts, rose petals, bean paste, and jujube paste, or any combination of two or three ingredients. Yuanxiao can be boiled, fried, or steamed, and are customarily served in fermented rice soup, called tianjiu (甜酒 tián jiǔ /tyen-jyoh/ ‘sweet liquor’).
As tangyuan is pronounced similarly to tuanyuan (团圆 /twan-ywen/ ‘group round’), which means the whole family gathering together happily, Chinese people believe that the round shape of the balls and their bowls symbolize wholeness and togetherness. Therefore, eating tangyuan on the Lantern Festival is a way for Chinese people to express their best wishes for their family and their future lives.
It is believed that the custom of eating tangyuan originated during the Song Dynasty, and became popular during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) periods.