China's Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month, on the last day of the Chinese New Year. Although it is the symbol of the end of the New Year's holiday, it is still a very important festival in itself, with a long origin that can date back as far as the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-25AD). Originally a religious festival to light for the Buddha, today the Lantern Festival is more secular in its activities. It is a bright and colorful festival loved by people of all ages.
Origin of Lantern Festival
Chinese Buddhism flourished during the Han Dynasty. One of the Western Han Dynasty's emperors heard that on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month 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 were used to make lanterns. The largest lantern festival on record happened during the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when the festivities lasted ten days. Emperor Chengzu had a large area in the center of the imperial capital set aside for displaying lanterns.
Customs of Lantern Festival
Do the decoration with lanterns
Traditionally, each family made their own lanterns which would be displayed on their houses and streets, Children would carry smaller lanterns hung on a short piece of bamboo around the streets, enjoying the lanterns made by the neighbors. Families would go out and enjoy the spectacles. Nowadays, festival decoration is easier. People can buy different lanterns in all kinds of shapes with various ingredients. Such as the environmentally friendly paper lantern or the Koi-shaped lantern made of bamboo.
Guessing lantern riddles
Another very important part of the Lantern Festival is the solving of Lantern Riddles. Take good care of those handmade lanterns and you can find a riddle, written on a piece of paper inside or just simply on the paper wall. Try to solve the riddle and bring your answer to the owner. For the correct answer, there will be a small gift as your award. The colorful lanterns in combination with the Chinese New Year Couplets, Door Gods, and New Year Prints add a wonderful atmosphere to the festival.
Shows of Dragon and Lion Dance and Walk on Stilts
During the day of the Lantern Festival, the locals dress up in dragon and lion costumes and perform dances in many areas. Especially in the city center, which is easy to get to and usually includes some singing, or in the alleyways of the old town, where you can feel the authentic atmosphere. To get a good view of these live shows, try to find a higher spot, such as the second floor of a building. With the sound of the gong getting louder and louder, you can see the vivid and lifelike lions running for the ball and the giant sacred long dragon passing by your window with fire and light. 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 the Lantern Festival. These performances are a great way to build up to the excitement of the evening.
Eating Yuanxiao dumplings
In the evening, before heading out to enjoy the lantern displays, people will have a dinner consisting of Yuanxiao, a kind of Chinese dumpling in round shape with the blessings of happiness, good fortune and reunion. Yuanxiao is 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.