Lantern Festival

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Lantern Festival (Teng Chieh, Feast of the First Full Moon)

Type of Holiday: Folkloric, Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Usually February; fifteenth through the eighteenth day of the first Chinese lunar month
Where Celebrated: China, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Tibet
Symbols and Customs: Dragon Parade, Lantern Riddles, Lanterns, Lion Dance, Rice Flour Dumplings (Yuanxiao)
Related Holidays: Chinese New Year


The Lantern Festival is believed to have originated with the emperors of China's Han Dynasty (206 B . C . E . to 221 C . E .), who paid tribute to the First Cause or origins of the universe on this night. Because the ceremony was held in the evening, LANTERNS were used to light the palace. Normally the Han rulers imposed a curfew on their subjects; but on this night, the curfew was lifted so that everyone could see the illuminated palace.

Today, whatever cosmic or religious significance the festival may originally have had is lost. The three-day Lantern Festival marks the end of the CHINESE NEW YEAR celebration and is primarily an occasion for hanging out lanterns, eating RICE FLOUR DUMPLINGS , and solving LANTERN RIDDLES . Merchants hang paper lanterns outLantern Festival

side their shops for several days before the full-moon day, and homeowners hang them from their porches and in their gardens. On the night of the festival, people throng the streets to see the lantern displays. The most popular lanterns are cutouts of running horses that revolve with the heat of the candles that burn under them. In Taipei, Taiwan's capital city, high-tech lanterns with mechanical animation, dry-ice "smoke," and laser beams take the form of fire-spewing dragons and other fantastic creatures. In Hong Kong, it is traditional for any man who has had a son born during the year to bring a lantern to the Ancestral Hall, where the fathers gather for a meal. There are processions of clowns, stilt-walkers, and actors in costume, and the popular LION DANCE is performed in the streets.

The timing of the Lantern Festival derives from the Chinese lunisolar calendar, the oldest system of time measurement still in use. It is widely employed in Asian countries to set the dates of seasonal festivals. The Chinese New Year takes place on the new moon nearest to the point which is defined in the West as the fifteenth degree on the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Each of twelve months in the Chinese year is twenty-nine or thirty days long and is divided into two parts, each of which is two weeks long. The Chinese calendar, like all lunisolar systems, requires periodic adjustment to keep the lunar and solar cycles integrated; therefore, an intercalary month is added when necessary.

The names of each of the twenty-four two-week periods sometimes correspond to seasonal festivals celebrated during the period. Beginning with the New Year, which takes place in late January or early February, these periods are known by the following names: Spring Begins (New Year and LI CH'UN), the Rain Water, the Excited Insects, the VERNAL EQUINOX, the Clear and Bright (CHING MING), the Grain Rains, the Summer Begins, the Grain Fills, the Grain in Ear, the SUMMER SOLSTICE (DOUBLE FIFTH ), the Slight Heat, the Great Heat, the Autumn Begins, the Limit of Heat, the White Dew (MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL), the AUTUMN EQUINOX, the Cold Dew, the Hoar Frost Descends, the Winter Begins, the Little Snow, the Heavy Snow, the WINTER SOLSTICE, the Little Cold, and the Great Cold.


Dragon Parade

The dragon is a mythical creature symbolic of vigor, fertility, and spring rain. It has been described as having the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, the eyes of a rabbit, the ears of a cow, the neck of a serpent, the scales of a fish, and the talons of a hawk. On the last day of the Lantern Festival, a huge dragon made of bamboo rods and satin cloth in sections three to four feet long and traditionally illuminated by candles is carried through the streets by dozens of men and boys. Strings of firecrackers are set off wherever the dragon parade goes. The Golden Dragon Parade in San Francisco, where there is a large Chinese population, has been an annual event since 1953. The dragon is 160 feet long and is accompanied by floats, marching bands, dance troupes, bell-and-drum corps, and various carnival-like characters. The San Francisco parade is considered the largest event of its kind in the world.

Lantern Riddles

The fifteenth day of the first month is also associated with a literary game that was popular at one time among elderly, educated people. Known as Cai Deng Mi or "Guessing the Lantern's Riddle," it consisted of writing riddles on slips of paper and pasting them lightly on LANTERNS hung either inside or outside the house. There might be hints in the form of objects hung from the lanterns with a written clue-a Chinese character, a line of verse, someone's name, etc.-pointing to the correct answer. Anyone who guessed the correct answer was rewarded on the spot.

Although lantern riddles are not as popular anymore, crossword puzzle lanterns with riddles pasted on their sides are still hung outside scholars' homes for the amusement of their literary friends.


The lanterns for which this festival is named probably date back to an ancient ceremony welcoming spring. The lantern, a source of light, was symbolic of the lengthening days of spring, and willow branches were used to symbolize spring rains. Another explanation is that evil spirits were believed to roam the earth on this night, and lanterns were used to scare them off. According to legend, a Ming Dynasty emperor ordered 10,000 lanterns to be set afloat on the lake at Nanking, and the sight was so beautiful that Buddha himself came down from Heaven to see it.

In rural areas of China, people hang lanterns at crossroads, near wells, and by marshes and rivers-places where the spirits of those who have died before their time and are therefore doomed to wander the earth are most likely to be found-in the hope that the light will lead these spirits to judgment and reincarnation. In the industrial city of Harbin in northeast China, fantastic lanterns have been carved from huge blocks of river ice for centuries. Now they are illuminated with colored electric lights and left standing until spring comes and the ice melts.

Chinese children make or buy lanterns in all shapes and put candles inside. The most popular shapes are those of whatever animal is the patron protector of that particular Chinese year-the rabbit, the tiger, the rat, the monkey, the horse, etc. Older children may take sticks of bamboo and stuff the hollow center with paper and oil-soaked rags to form a torch that will burn for several hours. Couples withLantern Festival

out children may purchase lanterns in the shape of little boys, and extra lanterns are often hung outside the house to indicate a desire for more children.

Lion Dance

Songs, dances, plays, and variety acts are performed throughout the Lantern Festival, but the Lion Dance is perhaps the most popular entertainment. Two men are concealed inside a huge papier-maché lion. One operates the moving jaws and lolling tongue of the head, which is decorated with bells. The other manipulates the lion's hindquarters. Accompanied by drums and gongs, the lion dances through the streets, crouching and leaping or bowing and hunching its back. Sometimes a "lion tamer" teases the lion. In some areas, the lion chases after a "pearl" or ball.

The Lion Dance reached its peak during the Tang dynasty (618-907 C . E .), when it featured five lions more than nine feet tall dressed in different colors. With wooden heads, silk tails, gilded eyes, and silver-plated teeth, the lions performed the Dance of the Five Directions while "lion boys" teased them with red whisks.

Because the lion is not indigenous to China, it took on a mythical aura. Sometimes lions were brought from Persia to the emperor as a form of tribute. They were highly valued and became symbolically associated with purity and protection.

Rice Flour Dumplings (Yuanxiao)

Sweet-tasting glutinous rice flour balls known as yuanxiao are traditionally served during the Lantern Festival. They are symbolic of the first full moon of the year and, because of their perfectly round shape, of the family as well. They may be filled with hawthorn, black bean, date, or sesame paste; in the southern part of China, pork, chicken, and vegetable fillings are popular. They are cooked just long enough to make the outer skin slippery.

How did the rice flour dumplings get their name? According to legend, the Lantern Festival originated because a young woman living in the emperor's household by the name of Yuan Xiao longed to see her parents. To help her out, a resourceful friend named Dongfang Shuo spread a rumor that the god of fire was going to burn down the city of Chang-an. The ensuing panic was widespread, and when he was summoned by the emperor, Dongfang Shuo advised him to have everyone leave the palace and hang LANTERNS on every streetcorner and building. This would make the fire god think that the city was already burning. The emperor followed his advice, and Yuan Xiao was able to go off and see her family.

In the north, it is customary to make the rice flour dumplings on the seventh day of the New Year and sell them on the eighth. They are served in restaurants throughout the three days of the Lantern Festival.


Bredon, Juliet, and Igor Mitrophanow. The Moon Year: A Record of Chinese Customs and Festivals. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1927. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Stepanchuk, Carol, and Charles Wong. Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1991. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco

Hong Kong Tourism Board
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Lantern Festival (Korea)

Eighth day of the fourth lunar month
In Korea, Buddha's birthday is observed on the evening of the eighth day of the fourth lunar month and is known as Deungseog or "lantern evening." A couple of days beforehand, some households hang a lantern-holder, a pole decorated with a pheasant's tail feather (or branch of pine) and colorful strips of silk. Then, on the evening of the eighth, they hang one lantern for each person in the family and light them. Tradition holds that the more brilliant the household can make its lantern display, the luckier it will be.
Although many types of lanterns are used, some of the most popular resemble a tortoise, duck, ship, drum, lotus flower, heron, carp, watermelon, or sun and moon.
Monks began the custom of hanging lanterns for Buddha's birthday during the middle of the Silla dynasty (seventh-eighth century). As Confucianism took stronger hold during the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), it fell into decline. Later in the 20th century many Koreans revived the tradition, though nowadays it is not as widespread. Still, temples all over South Korea hold celebrations in honor of the Buddha on this day with elaborate lantern displays, particularly in Seoul, where there are festivals at major temples with special religious services, other spiritual activities, games, crafts, and a huge lantern parade.
See also Vesak
The Korea Herald
3rd-5th Fl., 1-17, Jeong-dong
P.O. Box 6479, Jung-gu
Seoul, Korea
82-2-727-0205; fax: 82-2-727-0670
AnnCustKorea-1983, p. 97
FestWrld: SouthKorea-1998, p. 12
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 305

Lantern Festival (Yuan Hsiao Chieh)
January-February; 15th day of first lunar month, fourth day of first lunar month in Tibet
The Lantern Festival is a festival of lights that ends the Lunar New Year, or Chinese New Year, celebrations and marks the first full moon of the new lunar year.
In China, it's traditional for merchants to hang paper lanterns outside their shops for several days before the full-moon day. On the night of the festival, the streets are bright with both lanterns and streamers, and people go out in throngs to see the displays. The most popular lanterns are cut-outs of running horses that revolve with the heat of the candles that light them. Other customs include eating round, stuffed dumplings and solving "lantern riddles"—riddles that are written on pieces of paper and stuck to the lanterns. In many areas, children parade with lanterns of all shapes and sizes. It's also thought to be a good night for young women to find husbands. In Penang, Malaysia, single women in their best dresses stroll along the city's promenade, and some parade in decorated cars followed by musicians.
Tibetan Buddhists celebrate the day as Monlam, or Prayer Festival, and in Lhasa, the butter sculptures of the monks are famous ( see Butter Sculpture Festival). In China's Gansu Province, the Lhabuleng Monastery is the site of sculptured butter flowers made by the lamas and hung in front of the main scripture hall. On the day before the full moon, a dance is performed by about 30 masked lamas to the music of drums, horns, and cymbals. The protagonists are the God of Death and his concubines; they dance with others who are dressed as skeletons, horned stags, and yaks.
In 1990, the Taipei Lantern Festival was first held in Taiwan's capital city. It's held at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and features high-tech lanterns with mechanical animation, dry-ice "smoke," and laser beams. In recent years, theme lanterns were modeled after the Chinese zodiacal animals for those years. Sculptor Yuyu Yang has produced elaborate structures for the festival, including a dragon that was 40 feet high with a skin of a stainless-steel grid and 1,200 interior light bulbs that shone through to make it look like a gigantic hand-made paper lantern. Laser beams shot from the dragon's eyes, and red-colored smoke spewed from the mouth. Another year, he created three 33-foot-high goats made of acrylic tubes with colored lights shining from the inside.
The festival also offers musical and folk art performances, a procession of religious and folk floats, and troupes of performers entertaining with martial arts demonstrations, stilt-walking, and acrobatics.
In Hong Kong, anyone who has had a son during the year brings a lantern to the Ancestral Hall, where the men gather for a meal.
The Lantern Festival is supposed to have originated with the emperors of China's Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.-221 c.e.), who paid tribute to the universe on that night. Because the ceremony was held in the evening, lanterns were used to illuminate the palace. The Han rulers imposed a year-round curfew on their subjects, but on this night the curfew was lifted, and the people, carrying their own simple lanterns, went forth to view the fancy lanterns of the palace.
Another legend holds that the festival originated because a maid of honor (named Yuan Xiao, also the name of the sweet dumpling of this day) in the emperor's household longed to see her parents during the days of the Spring Festival. The resourceful Dongfang Shuo decided to help her. He spread the rumor that the god of fire was going to burn down the city of Chang-an. The city was thrown into a panic. Dongfang Shuo, summoned by the emperor, advised him to have everyone leave the palace and also to order that lanterns be hung in every street and every building. In this way, the god of fire would think the city was already burning. The emperor followed the advice, and Yuan Xiao took the opportunity to see her family. There have been lanterns ever since.
Hong Kong Tourism Board
115 E. 54th St. 2/F
New York, NY 10022
212-421-3382; fax: 212-421-8428
Taiwan Government Information Office
4201 Wisconsin Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
202-895-1850; fax: 202-362-6144
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 9
BkHolWrld-1986, Feb 27
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 603
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 325
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 91
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 63
HolSymbols-2009, p. 479
RelHolCal-2004, p. 231
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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