As this year’s Lunar New Year celebrations draw to a close, it’s time to get ready for the grand finale, a.k.a. the Lantern Festival.
Happening on the 15th day of the first lunar month (February 5 this year), the event, called Yuan Xiao Jie in Mandarin Chinese, is considered the perfect ending to the weeks-long Lunar New Year preparations and celebrations.
The Lantern Festival celebrates the first full moon of the year – hence the name (Yuan means the beginning. Xiao means night).
It marks the departure of winter and the beginning of the spring season. It often falls very close to two of the 24 traditional Chinese Solar Terms – an integral part of the Chinese calendar – “Spring Commences” and “Spring Showers.”
On this day, people light lanterns to symbolize driving out darkness and bringing hope to the coming year.
It’s said that the tradition gained popularity during China’s Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago.
Revelers would attend a local fair to admire fireworks, watch performances, view lanterns and solve riddles written on attached notes.
Lantern riddles have evolved over time. Here’s a simple one:
When you draw it, it’s round.
When you write it, it’s rectangular.
It’s short in winter.
It’s long in summer.
The answer is sun – 日 in Chinese.
Back in the day, the Lantern Festival was one of the rare times of the year when unmarried girls and boys would be allowed to meet each other, everyone gathering under rows of lanterns. That’s why some have even dubbed it Chinese Valentine’s Day.
The romantic festival has been well documented in historical literature, including “Journey to the West” and “Dream of the Red Chamber,” and has since inspired countless famous poems.
Lantern Festival traditions
Today, the Lantern Festival is observed in communities worldwide and celebrations vary significantly. Many cities put on grand lantern exhibitions and parades to mark the festival.
Putian in China’s Fujian province claims to have the longest Lantern Festival celebration in the country, with some saying it’s considered more important than the actual Lunar New Year festival.
Festivities last nearly three weeks and include a deity parade, fire pit jumping and plenty of traditional theater and music performances.
In Hebei’s Nuanquan town, residents put on a spectacular “firework” show by throwing molten iron against a cold stone city wall to create sparks.
The centuries-old custom, dashuhua or da tie hua (translated as hit tree flower or hit iron flower) has been recognized as intangible cultural heritage by the Chinese government. It was also one of the key performances at the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony in 2022.
Made famous in the town of Nuanquan, da tie hua shows are popular in other places across China, including the Great Wall in Beijing’s Yanqing District, during the Lantern Festival.
But Taiwan is where you’ll find the most extreme Lantern Festival event of them all – the Beehives Fireworks Festival.
Held annually in the city of Yanshui, thousands of daredevils in helmets and fire-retardant clothing bring a series of launch towers packed with small rocket fireworks that resemble beehives into the narrow streets.
Once lit, the towers shoot hundreds and thousands of rockets in different directions, resulting in a dramatic and often terrifying scene.
Romance and rice balls
No matter how big, small or dangerous your Lantern Festival party is, you can never go wrong with a bowl of round and sweet glutinous rice balls, referred to as tangyuan, as you admire the full moon.
The round motifs symbolize the reunion and wholeness of families.
Other unique celebrations can be found throughout Asia to mark the first full moon of the lunar year.
In Malaysia, the emphasis is on the match-making tradition of the Lantern Festival. Single women often toss tangerines into a river, lake or sea to pray for a good marriage.
Women write their contact info on the tangerines before tossing them into the river. Men then fish the tangerines out of the water, hoping to meet their future partners.
In South Korea, it’s called Daeboreum (the Great Full Moon). Many Koreans down a shot of chilled rice wine and eat different types of nuts, grains and dried vegetables. In addition to lighting lanterns, some also take a hike and make a bonfire.