Chinese Lantern Festival: History, Customs, and Activities

Last Friday, our company held the annual Lantern Festival celebration for the Year of the Rabbit. All colleagues seated together in the Conference Room, passed a balloon in cheerful melodies, made paper lanterns, and ate Yuanxiao (元宵) or Tangyuan (汤圆). We laughed and clapped and everyone was immersed in the festive atmosphere.

The Lantern Festival celebration started with passing a balloon in cheerful melodies. When the melodies sounded, the starter quickly passed the balloon to his neighbour and the neighbour to the next one… Colleagues sitting together was nervous, because everyone would hold the balloon in hands when the melody stopped. If you held the balloon in hands when the melody stopped, you would stand out and work as one of the six service staff to serve other colleagues. After four rounds of warming up, we finally picked up six people at random.

After that, we watched a video about how to assemble a paper lantern on the projection screen. Then, everyone was distributed with a set of paper lantern material that was ready-made and you only need to assemble each part together. The fact is, although you don’t need to sketch the lantern draft, fold, and trim paper from scratch, it is difficult to make up a complete lantern for someone with poor practical ability. When everyone finished assembling their lanterns in about 20 minutes, we took a group photo to mark the occasion.

The last event is eating tangyuan. The celebration reached its climax when bowls of tangyuan with sweet fermented rice was served on the trolley. Eventually, immersed in gourmet food, everyone reluctantly ended the significant celebration.

The History and Origin

Lantern Festival is traditionally celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, which marks the end of the traditional Spring Festival celebrations. Chinese people have a long history of celebrating the Lantern Festival like many other traditional Chinese holidays. As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206BC – AD25), it has become a significant festival.

At that time, Lantern Festival was also called Shangyuan Festival (上元节) and was celebrated as the Chinese Valentine’s Day in ancient China, the strict curfews kept people inside the house after dark and women also generally stayed indoors whether there were curfews or not. However, during the Lantern Festival, curfews were lifted and people could go out to watch lanterns at night. Thus, young women and men had an opportunity to date and meet new friends. The romantic facet of Lantern Festival also reflected in Chinese ancient drama and other works of art and literature in Song and Ming Dynasties.

The Lantern Festival had been celebrated with different pomp and circumstance over the years. In the Tang Dynasty (628 – 907CE), Lantern Festival celebrations lasted for three days, and In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279CE), they were extended to five days. Later, in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644CE), they lasted for a full ten days.

In the history of over 2,000 years of celebrations, there are also other origins about the Lantern Festival, like Buddhist origin and Jade Emperor’s revenge from Chinese Mythologies. It is these legends and stories that give Chinese traditional festivals a mysterious and magnificent color.

Customs and Activities

Today, the Lantern Festival is still popular, but it is not among the seven public holidays in Mainland China. Thus, Mainland Chinese will not have any days off from school or work on that day.

As a tradition, Chinese people eat Tangyuan ”汤圆” (or Yuanxiao “元宵” in northern cities) under the moon on the Lantern Festival when reuniting with their families or friends. Tangyuan “汤圆” are glutinous rice balls with sweet and sesame fillings cooked in boiling water, symbolizing reunion, happiness, and good wishes for the future life. When night falls on this day, people will light up all kinds of colorful lanterns across China, some are traditional red lanterns and rabbit lanterns, and others are lanterns with local historical and cultural characteristics. That also accounts for why it is called the Lantern Festival.

Besides, there are various activities going on the Lantern Festival.

Watch Festive Lanterns

When it comes to lanterns, the big round and basketball-shaped red lanterns may occur to you. This type of lanterns is commonly seen everywhere on streets and alleys around the time of the Chinese New Year, while lanterns displayed in Lantern Festival are quite different.

Let’s take the Lantern Festival in the Year of the Rabbit as an example. There are many rabbit-shaped lanterns with different colors and postures on the street. In Chinese poet and politician Qu Yuan’s hometown, there are also lanterns with a height of twelve meters like Qu yuan and lanterns in the shape of herbal sachet. The drone performances all over the sky expresses people’s hope and yearning for a better life in the future.

Guess Lantern Riddles

Guessing lantern riddles (猜灯谜) is a traditional activity dating back to Song Dynasty, when scholars wrote poetic riddles on small slips of paper and hung them under the lantern fringe for attendees to guess. Most of the lantern riddles are for entertainment, so they are easy to guess. Sometimes, emperor’s counsellors also used lantern riddles to make suggestions to the feudal ruler.

Based on the complex forms of wordplay, Chinese idioms, or only one character, the lantern riddles today are for entertainment but is difficult to guess for even well-educated Chinese students.

Enjoy Dragon and Lion Dance

Dragon and lion dance is a traditional performance in some parts of China. On the Lantern Festival, two dancers wear the lion suit with one controlling the lion’s head and front and the other controlling the rear or a group of performers get inside the dragon costume and manoeuvre long poles that support and control each part of the dragon body. While drumming, dancers perform various complex acrobatic tricks or martial arts, up and down the stakes, wishing for good luck and prosperous finance.

Set Off Fireworks and Crackers

Since fireworks (烟花) were invented in China, it’s quite common to see fireworks display from the start of the Lunar New Year to the Lantern Festival. In most big cities, families are forbidden to set off fireworks and crackers randomly and large firework shows are often sponsored by local governments.

In remote rural areas, individual people can still buy and set off fireworks or firecrackers. Together with other forms of Lantern Festival celebrations, such as going to the temple fair, parading with a lantern, etc., fireworks performance in countryside created a strong festive atmosphere.

Watch Lantern Festival Gala

On Lantern Festival Evening, people can choose to watch Lantern Festival gala at home even if they are not allowed to set off fireworks or cannot appreciate lanterns if the weather not permitted. CCTVs and major provincial satellite TVs will present an exquisite gala for audiences. They can enjoy bowls of yummy Tangyuan (汤圆) with family while watching cross talks, sketches, dances, acrobatics, martial arts, and listening to songs.