Falling on the 15th day of the first lunar month, Lantern Festival is the first significant feast after Spring Festival, so called because the most important activity during the night of the event is watching various wonderful Chinese lanterns. And because every household eats Yuanxiao (a rice ball stuffed with different fillings) on that day, it is called Yuan Xiao Festival. For its rich and colorful activities, it is regarded as the most recreational among all the Chinese festivals and a day for appreciating the bright full moon, and family reunion.
With a history of over 2,000 years, various traditional customs and activities are held during Lantern Festival that appeal to people of different ages, including watching lanterns and fireworks, guessing lantern riddles, performing folk dances, and eating Yuanxiao.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), Buddhism flourished in China. So in order to popularize Buddhism, one of the emperors gave an order to light lanterns in the imperial palace to worship and show respect for Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. During the Tang (618 – 907), Song (960 – 1279), Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties, lighting lanterns became a tradition for Chinese people.
Today, when the festival comes, red lanterns can be seen in the street, in each house, and store. In the parks, lanterns of various shapes and types attract countless visitors. Visitors marvel that various lanterns so vividly demonstrate traditional Chinese folklore.
Beginning from the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), guessing riddles is regarded as an indispensable part of the Lantern Festival. People write all kinds of riddles on pieces of paper, and paste them on colorful lanterns to let visitors guess. If one has an answer to a riddle, he can pull the paper to let organizers verify the answer. Gifts are presented to the people who get the right answers. Because this intellectual activity is exciting, people from all walks of life enjoy it.
Derived from the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), the lion dance is an excellent traditional art that adds infinite fun to any celebration including the Lantern Festival. Two performing types have formed during its long development. In north China, the lion dance focuses on skills, and in the south the lion dance pays more attention to the animal resemblance. One actor manipulates a small lion made of quilts resembling a real one, and with two persons acting like a big lion, one manages the head part and the other, the rest. Under the guidance of a director, the lions sometimes jump, leap, and do difficult acts such as walking on stilts.
Because the acting is always amusing, spectators enjoy it very much. According to ancient custom, the lion is a symbol of boldness and strength that can protect people, so by performing the lion dance, everyone prays for an auspicious and happy life.
Walking on stilts, another folk art, traces its origins to the Spring and Autumn period (770BC – 476BC). Performers not only walk on stilts by binding them to their feet, but also do some breathtakingly difficult moves. As actors impersonate different characters like monks, clowns, and fishermen and perform vivid and humorous acts, the art amuses many people.
Yuanxiao, also called Tangyuan, is a dumpling ball made of sticky rice flour stuffed with different fillings. Eating Yuanxiao has become an essential part of the festival. The methods for making Yuanxiao differ by region and fillings include sugar, rose petals, sesame, sweetened bean paste, and jujube paste. Some do not have fillings. Because Tangyuan can be boiled, fried or steamed, and each has a unique taste, it is very popular. Yuanxiao is round in shape so it is endowed with the meaning of reunion, harmony and happiness. During the night of the festival, family members sit together to taste Yuanxiao and appreciate the full moon.
Besides these activities, there is Welcoming Zigu (a kind and poor girl in folklore), in which women make straw and cloth images of Zigu and say consoling words to her expressing people’s goodness and their pity for the poor. Because appreciating the lanterns offers a good chance for young boys and girls to communicate with each other, the Lantern Festival is also regarded as Chinese Valentine’s Day.