When the end of the year hits for Westerners, we don party hats, play kazoos, drink copious amounts of champagne, and watch talking heads count down the seconds until midnight. For us, the end of the year is always December 31.
Not so in China. Here, the ebb and flow of years is marked by a series of ceremonies in the spring designed to formally honor the passage of time — and the changes that come with it. One of the more well-known year-end ceremonies is the Lantern Festival (sometimes called the Spring Lantern Festival).
What it’s all about
The Lantern Festival is linked to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which tracks days, months, and years according to astrological phenomena. The end of this calendar year varies, though it typically falls in February or March, punctuated by the ubiquitous Lantern Festival.
While modern light festivals throughout China can be very ornate and colorful, the core ritual remains the same: Natives and visitors purchase or make paper lanterns that symbolize the letting go of past selves and movement towards new, invigorated life. Designs on the lanterns can be simple figures or symbols, or more elaborate poems that speak to one’s life circumstances. Fully-designed lanterns are then carried out into the streets and put on display as public, collective acknowledgment of the coming new year.
Many cities embellish the once-simple ritual with towering, illuminated sculptures and mesmerizing light shows. Chengdu, for example — a city in Szechuan province — erects a 38-meter high golden dragon lantern that spews fireworks from its mouth. Other cities, like Hangzhou and Shanghai, have taken to using electric or neon lights.
Often accompanying the central lantern displays are public dances, highly choreographed and fitted with impressive costumes and fire play. The lion dance, for example, is a fixture at Lantern Festivals across the country; two or three dancers put on a many-foot-long lion costume (similar to the dragon costumes Western visitors are often familiar with), then bob and weave through crowds, shaking and shimmying to drum beats. Why a lion? It symbolizes strength and bravery — especially in the face of evil.
Lantern Festival participants will also likely see stilt walkers. This has long been a traditional form of entertainment amongst the Han people of northern China and is featured in two forms: the more subdued, graceful walking that you’ll likely see at large festivals with teeming crowds, and the more acrobatic stilt-walking, which is typically reserved for the stage.
History and origins of the Lantern Festival
As with many longstanding festivals and rituals, the origins of the Lantern Festival are hotly debated. Some claim that its roots lie in the Chinese Buddhist traditions of 2,000 years ago when monks would light temple lanterns on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Other origin stories are more outsized, folding in worship to the Taoist gods, requests for pleasing weather directed at irascible deities, and even pyromaniac emperors who wanted to burn rogue villages to the ground — cleverly evaded by village residents lighting lanterns and setting off fireworks to make the offended royalty think their homes were already ablaze, thereby obviating the need for more fire.
The Lantern Festival has always held tremendous import for the Chinese, who agree that whatever the ceremony’s origins, it serves as an opportune time to move toward a promising future. This extends to other countries, too. In the sixth century, for instance, Emperor Yangdi invited ambassadors from other countries to enjoy the protracted festivities, alongside lavish galas and parties.
By the 15th century, the Lantern Festival stretched to 10 days, with entire sections of downtown areas dedicated to the display of paper lanterns. This influence can be seen today in Beijing, where city dwellers can drop by the Dengshikou, roughly translated as “Lantern Market.”
Today, however, the Lantern Festival is much shorter. Visitors and locals will see lanterns hung for weeks, but the festivities themselves have been whittled down to a single day. If you’re keen on attending, be sure you’re in China well in advance of 2020’s Lantern Festival (February 8).
How you can participate
Much of the Lantern Festival in China is enjoyed by observing. People come to soak in the lights, the dances, the fireworks, and other entertaining displays. However, visitors are always welcome to add their lanterns to the mix, and there are a few ways you can get your own.
Buy your lantern before you fly: If you’re worried about finding a lantern in China that suits you, you can always buy one from an online outlet (like Paper Lantern Store) or a local store and take it with you. There are plenty of options of the eminently popular tomato-style lanterns available, and you can get them in a rainbow of colors with or without inscriptions.
Buy a lantern in China: If you’re in China right before the Lantern Festival, you’ll find plenty of stores and stands that sell lanterns. You can get a tomato-style lantern, the less common crystal magic lantern that features sundry geometric shapes, or the far more elaborate lanterns only available in China (dragons and lions are common designs).
Make your own lantern: If you’re more of a DIYer, plan ahead and make your own lantern. All you need are a few sheets of colorful paper, scissors, and some creativity. For step-by-step instructions, we recommend checking out this post from China Family Adventure.
For more information about the Chinese Lantern Festival — and lantern inspiration — visit chinahighlights.com. Also, if you’re interested in other sites worth visiting in China, check out our article on the Terracotta Army in Xian.