Chinese Lantern Festival: Customs and symbolism of event marking end of Lunar New Year celebrations

Chinese Lantern Festival marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations and it falls on February 11 this year.

Thailand cancels, reschedules flights ahead of lantern festival
People release sky lanterns ahead of the traditional Chinese Lantern Festival Reuters

The annual lantern festival is one of the most important dates in the Chinese calendar as it marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations with colourful decorations, performances and firecrackers. It is believed that after the Lantern Festival, the Chinese New Year taboos are no longer in effect.

The lantern festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar. This year, the festival falls on February 11.

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What happens during the Lantern festival?

With a history of more than 2,000 years, various traditional customs and activities are performed during the Chinese Lantern Festival. People hang decorative lanterns on the streets, fireworks are set off and special dinners are cooked. Yuanxiao, small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour with a sweet filling are a must in the dinner menu as it has become an essential part of the festival.

The festival also includes guessing lantern riddles which is said to be an indispensable part of the Lantern Festival. People write all kinds of riddles on pieces of paper and paste them on their colorful lanterns and the visitors are supposed to guess those. If one has an answer to a riddle, he can pull the paper to let organizers verify the answer. Interesting gifts are presented to the people who get the right answers. Folk Dances including lion dance and walking on stilts are also performed during this festival.

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A man performs a lion dance outside a restaurant during Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinatown in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan Reuters

Traditionally, the Lantern Festival was celebrated to cherish the approach of spring and longer daylight hours. It began as a sign of appreciation of the first full moon of the New Year, with simple decorations. But over the years, the festival has evolved as a major celebration for the Chinese community.

What is the origin of the Lantern festival?

In the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Emperor Hanmingdi was an advocate of Buddhism. One day he came to know that some monks lit lanterns in the temples to show their respect to Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Since then, he ordered that all the temples, households, and royal palaces should light lanterns on that evening. Gradually, the custom turned into a grand festival among the people.

Chinese Lantern Festival: When and how did the celebration begin?
Buddhist monks release sky lanterns as they pray during celebrations for the New Year of the Dai minority in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, April 13, 2015. Reuters

What are the myths surrounding the Lantern Festival?

There are different versions of stories about the myths surrounding the lantern festival. One of those stories states that the lantern festival originated from the birthday of Tianguan, the Taoist god of good fortune. The festival coincides with the festival and hence the festivities take place with the hope of good luck.

Another story says that the origin of the festival centers on the Jade Emperor, who was one of the representations of the first god in the Chinese culture, traditional religions and mythology. The story highlights how the Emperor's favourite crane was hunted and killed as it flew down to earth. The Jade Emperor was furious at this and planned a firestorm as retaliation on the people. Then, the villagers were suggested by a wise man to hang red lanterns outside and create bonfires for three days. This was to trick the Jade Emperor so that he thinks that the village was already on fire and there was no point to put fire anymore.

Chinese Lantern Festival: When and how did the celebration begin?
A man photographs lanterns at a temple decorated to celebrate Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 7, 2016. Reuters