The Lantern Festival (also known as the Yuanxiao Festival or Shangyuan Festival in China; Chap Goh Meh Festival in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore; Yuen Siu Festival in Hong Kong, and “Tết Thượng Nguyên” or “Tết Nguyên Tiêu” in Vietnam); is a festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunisolar year in the Chinese calendar, the last day of the lunisolar Chinese New Year celebration. It is not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is sometimes also known as the “Lantern Festival” in locations such as Singapore and Malaysia. During the Lantern Festival, children go out at night to temples carrying paper lanterns and solve riddles on the lanterns (simplified Chinese: 猜灯谜; traditional Chinese: 猜燈謎; pinyin: cāidēngmí). It officially ends the Chinese New Year celebrations.
In ancient times, the lanterns were fairly simple, for only the emperor and noblemen had large ornate ones; in modern times, lanterns have been embellished with many complex designs. For example, lanterns are now often made in shapes of animals.
In some region and countries, this festival is also regarded as the Chinese version of St. Valentine’s Day, a day celebrating love and affection between lovers in Chinese tradition and culture.
The first month of the Chinese calendar is called yuan month, and in ancient times people called night xiao; therefore, the day is called Yuan Xiao Festival in China and Taiwan. The fifteenth day is the first night to see a full moon in that lunar year. According to Chinese tradition, at the very beginning of a new year, when there is a bright full moon hanging in the sky, there should be thousands of colorful lanterns hung out for people to appreciate. At this time, people will try to solve puzzles on lanterns, eat yuanxiao (‘元宵’in Chinese) (a glutinous rice ball, also known as simplified Chinese: 汤圆; traditional Chinese: 湯圓; pinyin: tāngyuán) and enjoy a family reunion.
The Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, usually in February or March in the Gregorian calendar. As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), it had become a festival with great significance.
This day’s important activity is watching lanterns. Throughout the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), Buddhism flourished in China. One emperor heard that Buddhist monks would watch sarira, or remains from the cremation of Buddha’s body, and light lanterns to worship Buddha on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, so he ordered to light lanterns in the imperial palace and temples to show respect to Buddha on this day. Later, the Buddhist rite developed into a grand festival among common people and its influence expanded from the Central Plains to the whole of China.
Till today, the lantern festival is still held each year around the country. Lanterns of various shapes and sizes are hung in the streets, attracting countless visitors. Children will hold self-made or bought lanterns to stroll with on the streets, extremely excited.
“Guessing lantern riddles”is an essential part of the Festival. Lantern owners write riddles on a piece of paper and post them on the lanterns. If visitors have solutions to the riddles, they can pull the paper out and go to the lantern owners to check their answer. If they are right, they will get a little gift. The activity emerged during people’s enjoyment of lanterns in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). As riddle guessing is interesting and full of wisdom, it has become popular among all social strata.
People will eat yuanxiao, or rice dumplings, on this day, so it is also called the “Yuanxiao Festival.”Yuanxiao also has another name, tangyuan. It is small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour with rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil as filling. Tangyuan can be boiled, fried or steamed. It tastes sweet and delicious. What’s more, tangyuan in Chinese has a similar pronunciation with “tuanyuan”, meaning reunion. So people eat them to denote union, harmony and happiness for the family.
In the daytime of the Festival, performances such as a dragon lantern dance, a lion dance, a land boat dance, a yangge dance, walking on stilts and beating drums while dancing will be staged. On the night, except for magnificent lanterns, fireworks form a beautiful scene. Most families spare some fireworks from the Spring Festival and let them off in the Lantern Festival. Some local governments will even organize a fireworks party. On the night when the first full moon enters the New Year, people become really intoxicated by the imposing fireworks and bright moon in the sky.