The festivities for the Chinese New Year are concluded by celebrating the Lantern Festival on the 15th day. With its origin dating back to over 2000 years, Chinese culture has developed numerous meanings for the festival. Its essence is the celebration of family reunion and society and it features ancient spiritual traditions.
Some popular activities observed during the Lantern Festival include traditional lantern lighting, moon-gazing, and eating rice balls. If you look at the Lunar Calendar, the festival takes place on January 15.
If you want to know more about festivities in China, read Chinese New Year Calendar 2020 for the updated schedule of events. Meanwhile, the following are the dates of past and future Lantern Festivals using the Gregorian Calendar:
- 2017- February 11
- 2018- February 16
- 2019- February 19
- 2020- February 8
- 2021- February 26
- 1 The Significance of the Lantern Festival in Chinese Culture
- 2 History of the Lantern Festival
- 3 Lantern Festival Celebration
- 4 Lights and Lanterns
- 5 Traditions and Activities
- 6 Lantern Festival Food
The Significance of the Lantern Festival in Chinese Culture
The Spring Festival is time set aside for family. Age-old traditions like the reunion dinner, visiting in-laws on the second day emphasize the importance of family in Chinese culture. It is only until the fifth day that stores reopen and people go back to their regular routines. But on the 15th day of the celebration, everyone goes out onto the streets to paint the town red and commemorate the Lantern Festival.
In Ancient China, women were barely allowed to go out of the house except on the night of the Lantern Festival. They would stroll around freely, participate in lighting lanterns, play games, and interact with others around them including men. This is why some people would refer to the occasion as the true Chinese Valentine’s Day.
The festival also has religious significance. It was important in ancient Chinese Paganism and is still relevant in modern-day Buddhism and ethnic minority cultures. If you’re interested in folklore, check out our list of famous Chinese New Year myths.
History of the Lantern Festival
Many Chinese scholars agree that the festival started out over 2000 years ago in the Western Han Dynasty. Emperor Wu (汉武帝) dedicated this day for people to perform worship rituals for Taiyi (太一神), one of the rulers of the universe.
There was an intense struggle for power and unrest after his reign ended until Emperor Wen (汉文帝) took over. To commemorate the return of peace, the new emperor designated the 15th as a national holiday. Every household would light lanterns and the occasion became known as 闹元宵 (nào yuán xiāo). “Nào” can be interpreted as having a good time.
Later in the Eastern Han Dynasty, Emperor Ming discovered that Buddhist monks would light candles on the 15th for Buddha. Being a devout Buddhist himself, he ordered the palace and temples to be lit with candles and for his constituency to hang lanterns on the 15th. Both these junctures in history shaped the Lantern Festival we know today.
Lantern Festival Celebration
The duration of the celebrations for the festival varied throughout history. During the Ming Dynasty, the festival lasted around a month. Currently, the event is not technically considered a national holiday so there are no days off. However, there are holidays today that coincide with the Lantern Festival so they are often celebrated together.
Torch Festival (火把节)
The purpose of celebrating the Torch Festival is to express wishes of a good harvest to scare away insects and pests. Children and adults alike would participate in the festivity. The children would gather firewood and tree branches for the adults to light. Entire communities would dance in the fields from dusk until dawn while holding these torches. Today, the festival is still celebrated in some regions of Southwest China.
Vegetable Stealing Festival (偷菜节)
On the 15th, groups of girls from the Miao ethnicity would steal Chinese cabbage from other people’s fields. They would not be reprimanded even when they are caught by the owner, but they are forbidden from stealing from friends and family.
They would gather all their stolen cabbage and feast on them. It is believed that the girl who eats the most cabbage will get married ahead of everyone else. Cabbage is also a popular ingredient in some of the best Chinese New Year food!
Lights and Lanterns
As the name of the festival suggests, lanterns are the highlights of the occasion. The Lantern Festival was also formerly called Shang Yuan (上元) and was dedicated to the heavenly palace (天宫).
People would get together in a yard and gather offerings for the gods. They would set aside a lit lantern to represent a god’s seat. You can also check out our article on classic Chinese New Year myths.
The lanterns themselves have numerous variations. They can come in the form of a globe that could fit in the palm of your hand to something as large as a parade float. People also make lanterns in the shape of auspicious symbols and characters.
One of the more basic and popular designs is the Kongming lantern (孔明灯), also known as the sky lantern (天灯). In the past, they were used to signify that people were safe after an attack. Nowadays, they are used to express wishes.
The Chinese term for “sky lantern” (天灯—tiān dēng) also sounds similar to the term for “adding children” 添丁 (tiān ding). For this reason, they were often given to newlyweds or couples who have yet to bear children. Pregnant women are sometimes given a pair of small lanterns as wishes for health and safety for both the mother and the unborn child.
Traditions and Activities
Like many Chinese traditional celebrations, the Lantern Festival has its own unique set of activities other than lighting lanterns. In the Northern province of Hebei, there are jǐng xíng lā huā (井陉拉花) performances during the festival. People would dance to the beat of drums while holding fans and parasol-like props. This dance is often featured in the famous Spring Festival Gala.
In ancient China, one of the folks’ favorite pastimes was to ask and answer riddles while indulging in wine. This was later integrated with the Lantern Festival as people started writing riddles on the lanterns. They are very popular for festival-goers of all ages because they require you to think critically and outside the box. Some Chinese love stories even suggest you can catch the attention of your crush through these riddles!
Dragon Dance (耍龙灯)
The Dragon dance has a long history in Chinese culture. Performers of this dance comprise a team of experienced dancers who manipulate a long and flexible figure of a dragon. Poles are positioned at regular intervals along the length of the figure.
The dragon symbolizes Chinese culture and is believed to be bearers of good luck. The longer the figure of the dragon is, the more luck it brings to the community.
Lion Dance (舞狮子)
The Lion dance can be witnessed in various celebrations in China including holidays, weedings, and even store openings. Figures of the lion are often elaborately designed with movable eyes and mouth. Their mouths open as a gesture of demanding for food or red pockets. They sometimes even roll around and play like oversized cats.
Chinese Stilts (踩高跷)
Arising out of Chinese opera, stilt performances have long been a spectacle during the Lantern Festival. The costumes and height of the stilts vary depending on the characters.
Lantern Festival Food
Rice balls are the most popular food during the festival and one of the most well-known Chinese New Year desserts! They are made of glutinous rice filled with sweet stuffing made of syrup, red bean paste, black sesame paste, and other ingredients. They are usually boiled and served with hot water but they can also be steamed or fried.
The Lantern Festival may mark the end of the celebrations for the Chinese New Year. But it is certainly one of the most fun-filled days throughout the whole event!