The Lantern Festival, also known in China as the Yuan Xiao Festival or Shang Yuan Festival, with a history of more than 2,000 years, falls on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
It marks the end of the Spring Festival celebration and is also the first major festival after Chinese New Year.
The first lunar month is called the yuan month, and in ancient times, people called the night “xiao”; the 15th day is the first night to see a full moon in that lunar year. That is how the day earned its name as the Yuan Xiao Festival.
- In 2021, the date of the Lantern Festival is February 26th.
Origin and History
- The Lantern Festival existed as early as 2,000 years ago, during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD). Emperor Wu of Han took this day to offer sacrifices to "Taiyi"(the God who dominates the universe).
- The practice of appreciating lanterns during this festival actually originated in the Eastern Han Dynasty (24-220 AD) under Emperor Ming’s reign.
Emperor Ming of Han was a big advocate of Buddhism. Hearing of the custom that monks would light lanterns to worship the Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month, he officially decreed that all palaces and temples should feature lanterns, and people right across the country should hang lanterns, creating the tradition of lantern displays.
- With the years, this Buddhist festival has grown into a grand folk festival.
In ancient times, there were once many fierce and cruel animals trying to harm both people and livestock. Chinese villagers organized to kill these animals.
- The Jade Emperor’s beloved crane, however, was lost on earth and was unwittingly killed by a hunter, which infuriated the Jade Emperor. Thus, the hunter’s village was to be destroyed by a firestorm on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
Luckily, the Jade Emperor’s kind-hearted daughter alerted the villagers to his plan, since she wanted to save the innocent villagers’ lives.
- Hearing the news, a wise old man suggested the villagers should hang lit lanterns in every house and explode firecrackers and fireworks on the 14th day to the 16th day of the first lunar month, to make it seem to the Jade Emperor that the village had caught fire.
That way, he would be deceived and might abandon his plan. The people all agreed and did as the old man proposed.
On the 15th day of the first lunar month, the Jade Emperor’s troops found the whole town was already ablaze. They thought the village had been burnt and returned to heaven to report to the Emperor. The Jade Emperor was satisfied and decided not to continue with his retaliatory plan.
Celebrations and Lantern Festival Food
The celebration of Chinese New Year reaches a high point at the time of the Lantern Festival.
- Early in the morning, there are dragon-dancing and lion-dancing parades in the streets, which last nearly a whole morning and afternoon.
- In the evening, family members go out together, light colorful lanterns, guess lantern riddles, and fly kongming lanterns (孔明灯).
- Yuan Xiao, aka Tangyuan (rice glue ball), a typical Chinese food, is essential at Lantern Festival. In Chinese culture, it is symbolic of reunion.
Celebration days and customs of the Lantern Festival evolved with time:
Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) – 1 day, Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) – 3 days, Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) – 5 days, Ming dynasty (1368–1644 AD) – 10 days, Qing dynasty (1644–1911 AD) – 4 to 5 days.
Fun Facts About the Lantern Festival
Chinese St. Valentine’s Day
Lantern Festival is also known as Chinese Valentine's Day, a day to celebrate love and affection between lovers.
- In ancient China, young ladies were not allowed to go out freely except at the time of the Lantern Festival. It was once customary for single people to carry lit lanterns on the streets in hopes of finding their true love.
With the beautiful full moon and fancy lanterns, the Lantern Festival was romantic enough to be an occasion for young ladies to meet their lovers.
As time passed, however, the festival no longer had such an emphasis on romance.
Guessing Lantern Riddles
The Chinese people are proud of their intelligence and ability to think abstractly, so “guessing lantern riddles” is an incredibly popular activity during the festival.
- The riddles often contain messages of good fortune, family, reunion, abundant harvests, prosperity, and love, many of which originated from the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC). Then in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 AD), people began to write riddles on their lanterns for visitors to guess.
Right up until today, people in cities across China convene delightful riddle competitions to celebrate the Lantern Festival. Because they are so inspiring and fascinating, riddles are popular with people of all ages and walks of life.
According to many love legends in Chinese history, single people can attract the attention of their crush through this guessing game!