Chinese Lantern Festival is the first significant celebration of the Lunar New Year. Taking place on the 15th day of the year, the festival marks the first full moon and symbolizes reunion of family. With roots back to the founding of China, the Chinese Lantern Festival has several traditional origin stories. And while the history may vary, there are common ways to celebrate still recognized all over the world.
Lantern Festival Dates
- 2018 March 2
- 2019 February 19
- 2020 February 8
How to Celebrate the Chinese Lantern Festival
There are four main elements to celebrating Chinese Lantern Festival: the riddles, yuanxiao (rice dumplings), the Lion Dance and the lanterns.
Solving the Riddles of the Lantern Festival
A tradition dating back to 960 AD is still celebrated today. Lantern owners will write riddles on pieces of paper inside their lanterns. When someone finds the riddle, they get a chance to solve it for a small gift. Because the activity is entertaining and intellectual, it is popular among all social classes.
Eating Yuanxiao (or Tangyuan)
As with many Chinese festivals, food plays an important role. Rice dumplings, called yaunxaio or tangyuan, are shared among family and friends for the Lantern Festival. They are gelatinous balls made from rice flour and can be filled with a vary of ingredients, including rose petals, sesame, bean paste, nuts and dried fruit.
The Lion Dance
The Lion Dance has a rich history of marking important times in Chinese culture. Dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD), it is performed all over the world today. Ancient people regarded the lion as a symbol of bravery and strength. They thought it would rid evil spirits from humans and livestock. Today, it is a rich traditional folk art. Artists will perform the Lion Dance at important events, especially the Chinese Lantern Festival, to ward off evil and bring in good luck.
The main activity of the Lantern Festival is lighting and watching lanterns. Lanterns of various sizes and shapes are hung in the streets attracting visitors. Children will carry handmade lanterns in the streets as the celebrate. The red color holds true with other Chinese traditions symbolizing good luck and happiness. The origins of the lanterns can be traced back to a variety of sources.
Taoist History of the Lantern Festival
The Taoist god of good fortune was believed to enjoy all types of entertainment. To celebrate his birthday, the 15th day of the new year, followers would conduct elaborate performances to bring good fortune and pray for prosperity.
Buddhist History of the Chinese Lantern Festival
The Buddhist origins of the Lantern Festival date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC). During this time Buddhism was popular (today it’s about 13%), and one emperor took notice of one particular monk activity. On the 15th day of the lunar new year, Buddhist monks would light lanterns as they watched for sarira and worshiped Buddha. The emperor ordered the imperial palace and all temples to light lanterns out of respect for Buddha. This observance gained popularity and eventually spread to all of China, turning into a grand festival.
Traditional Chinese Origins of the Lantern Festival
Traditional Chinese stories tell the tale of heavenly crane being killed by mortals. In those days, the people had to protect themselves from many wild animals. To survive, they would kill them. One day, a majestic heavenly crane got lost from heaven and flew down to earth. The people mistook it as a threat and killed it. This angered the Jade Emperor (god of heaven) and he planned to burn all of the people’s land and possessions.
However, a wise man suggested the villagers hang red lanterns, light bon fires and set off fireworks. This would give the appearance of the village burning. On the 15th day of the lunar new year, the Jade Emperor sent his troops to burn the village, but they reported that it already was burning. Satisfied, the Jade Emperor decided to take no further action.
From that day on, people celebrates the plans success on the 15th day of the year by hanging lanterns and setting off fireworks.