7 chinese festival of lanterns

chinese festival of lanterns

On the 15th day of the first lunar month, two weeks after Chinese New Year, another important traditional Chinese festival, the Chinese Lantern Festival or Yuan Xiao Jie or Yuanxiao Festival (元宵节), is celebrated. It marks the first full moon of the new lunar year and the end of the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) period. Chinese Lantern Festival 2023 will be celebrated on February 5th in 2023.

On the night of the Chinese Lantern Festival, streets are decorated with colorful lanterns, often with riddles written on them. People eat sweet rice balls called tangyuan, watch dragon and lion dances, and set off fireworks.

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Chinese Lantern Festival Facts

  • Popular Chinese name: 元宵节 Yuánxiāojié /ywen-sshyaoww jyeah/ ‘first night festival’
  • Alternative Chinese name: 上元节 Shàngyuánjié /shung-ywen-jyeah/ ‘first first festival’
  • Date: Lunar calendar month 1 day 15 (February 5, 2023)
  • Importance: marks the end of the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) period
  • Celebrations: enjoying lanterns, lantern riddles, eating tangyuan a.k.a. yuanxiao (ball dumplings in soup), lion dances, dragon dances, etc.
  • History: about 2,000 years
  • Greeting: Happy Lantern Festival! 元宵节快乐!Yuánxiāojié kuàilè! /ywen-sshyaoww-jyeah kwhy-luh/

When is the Chinese Lantern Festival 2023?

Chinese Lantern Festival is on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month (always between February 4 and March 6). In 2023, the Chinese Lantern Festival will fall on February 5.

The Significance of the Chinese Lantern Festival

Chinese New year, also called Spring Festival in China, marks the beginning of the Spring season. The Chinese Lantern Festival marks the final day of these celebrations. After the Lantern Festival, Chinese New Year taboos are no longer in effect, and all New Year decorations are taken down. Some people still wait till after the festival to return to work or study.

The lanterns symbolize people letting go of the past year and welcoming the new year with good fortune.

The Origins and Stories of Chinese Lantern Festival

Chinese Lantern Festival can be traced back to 2,000 years ago. There are many origin stories about it. Here are two of the most popular ones:

Origin Story 1: A Buddhist Celebration

Ruling the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), Emperor Hanmingdi was an advocate of Buddhism. He heard that some monks lit lanterns in their temples to show respect to Buddha on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.

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Therefore, he ordered that all the temples, households, and royal palaces should light lanterns on that evening. This Buddhist custom gradually became a grand festival among the people of China.

Origin Story 2: A Trick Played on the Jade Emperor

A legend has it that the Jade Emperor’s favorite crane was killed by some villagers. So, he decided to destroy the village with fire on the fifteenth day of the lunar year. The Jade Emperor’s daughter felt very sad about this and warned the villagers about what was going to happen.

Then, a wise man advised the villagers to hang red lanterns to give the Jade Emperor the impression that the village was already on fire. The emperor was fooled and the village survived. This tradition of hanging red lanterns on the fifteenth day of the lunar year has continued until the present time.

How Do Chinese Celebrate the Chinese Lantern Festival?

The most popular traditions to celebrate Yuanxiao Festival are enjoying lanterns, guessing lantern riddles, eating tangyuan, and lion/dragon dances.

1. Lighting and Watching Lanterns

Lighting and appreciating lanterns is the main activity of Yuan Xiao Jie. Lanterns are seen everywhere including in houses, shopping malls, parks, and streets. The (traditional) lanterns are almost always red to invoke good fortune.

Lighting lanterns symbolize «illuminating the future». It is a way for people to pray that they will have smooth futures and to express their best wishes for their families. In the Taiwanese Mandarin dialect, the Chinese word for lantern (灯 dēng) is pronounced similarly to (丁 dīng), which means ‘to have a new-born baby’, so in Taiwan putting up lanterns could even express a wish for couples to have a baby!

During the Lantern Festival, many big lantern fairs are held in China, such as Qinhuai International Lantern Festival in Nanjing and Shanghai Yuyuan Lantern Festival. The lanterns’ artwork vividly illustrates traditional Chinese imagery and symbols, such as fruits, flowers, birds, animals, people, and buildings.

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Read more about Chinese lanterns.

2. Guessing Lantern Riddles

Guessing (solving) lantern riddles started in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and it is one of the most important and popular activities of the Lantern Festival. Lantern owners write riddles on paper notes and paste them on the colorful lanterns. People crowd round to guess the riddles.

If someone thinks they have the right answer, they can pull the riddle off and go to the lantern owner to check their answer. If the answer is right, there is usually a small gift as a prize.

3. Eating Tangyuan (Yuanxiao)

Eating tangyuan is an important custom of the Lantern Festival. Tangyuan (汤圆 tāngyuán /tung-ywen/ ‘soup round’), also called yuanxiao in the north, are balls of glutinous rice boiled in a sweet soup.

As tangyuan is pronounced similarly to tuanyuan (团圆 /twan-ywen/ ‘group round’), which means ‘reunion’ and ‘completeness’, Chinese people believe that the round shape of the balls and bowls symbolize wholeness and togetherness. The popular lucky saying when eating tangyuan is 团团圆圆 (/Tuántuán yuányuán/ ‘group-group round-round’): ‘Happy (family) reunion!’

Check out Lantern Festival Food below to learn more about tangyuan.

4. Watching Dragon Dances and Lion Dances

As two of the most outstanding traditional folk dances in China, dragon and lion dances are common during the Lantern Festival. Chinese people (traditionally) regard the lion as a symbol of bravery and strength and believe that it’s appearance can drive away evil and protect people and their livestock. Chinese people worship the dragon and regard it as a symbol of good luck.

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Read more on Chinese New Year Lion Dances and Dragon Dances.

Chinese Lantern Festival Food

The most traditional food eaten at Chinese Lantern Festival is tangyuan (汤圆 tāngyuán /tung-ywen/ ‘soup round’), also called yuanxiao in northern China. They are ball-shaped dumplings, made of glutinous rice flour and stuffed with different fillings, such as brown sugar, sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts, bean paste, and jujube paste or a combination of ingredients. They are usually sweet.

It is a must-eat food at the Chinese Lantern Festival due to its auspicious meaning in every aspect — from its round shape to its sweet taste and fine-sounding pronunciation.

  • Its round shape symbolizes wholeness and completeness.
  • Its sweet taste symbolizes a sweet and happy life.
  • Tangyuan sounds similar to tuanyuan (团圆), which means ‘reunion’. It, therefore, symbolizes family reunion, harmony, and happiness.

Yuanxiao can be boiled, fried, or steamed, and are customarily served in fermented rice soup, called tianjiu (甜酒 tiánjiǔ /tyen-jyoh/ ‘sweet liquor’).

It is believed that the custom of eating tangyuan originated during the Song Dynasty era, and became popular during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynastic periods.

Is Yuanxiao Jie the Real Chinese Valentine’s Day?

China’s Lantern Festival is one of the romantic traditional Chinese festivals. In ancient times, unmarried women were not allowed to go out of the house. The Chinese Lantern Festival provided an opportunity for them to stroll freely, lighting lanterns, playing games, and interacting with men. This is why some say that the Chinese Lantern Festival is the true Chinese «Valentine’s Day», rather than Qixi Festival (七夕 ‘Double Seventh’).

Chinese Lantern Festival 2023 Events Around the World

Chinese Lantern Festival has become increasingly popular in Western countries in recent years. Many large lantern displays are held, such as:

  • The North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival: November 18th, 2022 – January 8th, 2023
  • Winter Lantern Festival: Dec. 16-Feb. 12, 2023, Washington, DC
  • The Auckland Lantern Festival 2023, February 2-5, 2023, Auckland, New Zealand

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