China's Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month, on the last day of the Chinese New Year. It is not only the last day of the New Year's Festival, but a very important festival in itself. The Lantern Festival's origin dates back as far as to the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-25AD). Originally a religious festival, today the Lantern Festival is more secular in its activities. It is a bright and colorful festival loved by people of all ages.
During the Han Dynasty, Chinese Buddhism was flourished. One of the Western Han Dynasty's emperors heard that on the fifteenth day of the first lunar months Buddhist monks would light lanterns and sit and watch the cremated remains of The Buddha. The emperor being a devout Buddhist ordered that on that night all of the lights in the imperial palace and temples be lit to honor The Buddha. It caught on, and was celebrated by the common people throughout China and eventually evolved into the Lantern Festival.
In the Sui Dynasty (581-618), the emperors would invite envoys from other countries to come to China to enjoy the lanterns and performances in the imperial capital. By the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) the festival had expanded to last three days and the emperor lifted all curfews which allowed local people to enjoy the festive lanterns all night. In the Song Dynasty (960-1229) the festival had grown to last five days and colorful glass and jade was used to make lanterns. The largest Lantern Festival on record happened during the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the festivities lasted ten days. The Emperor Chengzu had a large area in the center of the imperial capital set aside for displaying lanterns.
Traditionally each family made their own lanterns which would be displayed on their houses and streets and children would carry smaller lanterns hung on a short piece of bamboo around the streets enjoying the lanterns. Families would go out and enjoy the spectacles. Another very important part of Lantern Festival is the solving of Lantern Riddles. Each person who created their own lantern would write a riddle on a piece of paper and put it on the lantern. If a visitor could solve the riddle they would go to the owner and if correct, they would win a small gift. The colorful lanterns in combination with the Chinese New Year Couplets, Door Gods, and New Year Prints add a wonderful atmosphere to the festival.
During the day of the Lantern Festival Dragon and Lion dances are held in many areas. In the north an art form known as Walk on Stilts (Cai Gao Qiao), which consists of people dancing, and performing acrobatics on very high stills can be seen on the day of Lantern Festival. These performances are a great way to build up to the excitement of the evening.
In the evening before heading out to enjoy the lantern displays, people will have a dinner consisting of Yuanxiao, a kind of Chinese dumpling. Yuanxiao are small balls made of glutinous rice flour. The balls are stuffed with sweet things such as walnuts, sesame seeds, osmanthus flowers, rose petals, and sugar. A single ingredient or a combination of ingredients can be used. The balls are cooked in boiling water that has been sweetened with sugar. The balls and broth are eaten together and are greatly enjoyed by the Chinese people.
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