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The Chinese Lantern Festival

Wednesday, February 23, 2011    

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LANTERN Festival, also called Yuan Xiao Festival, falls on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar, usually in February or early March in the Gregorian calendar, marking the end of the celebration of the Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year).

Origin legends

As early as the West Han Dynasty (206BC-AD 25), it had become a festival with great significance. Throughout the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220), Buddhism flourished in China. One emperor heard that Buddhist monks would watch sarira, or remains from the cremation of Buddha's body, and would light lanterns to worship Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month, so he ordered that lanterns be lit in the imperial palace and temples to show respect to Buddha on that day. Later, the Buddhist rite developed into a grand festival among ordinary people and its influence expanded from the Central Plains to the whole of China. Today, the Lantern Festival is still held each year around the country.

Lantern display

In the festival, the important activity is to look at lanterns. In early times, a few days before the festival, people began gathering oiled paper, silk cloth, bamboo sticks and flowers to make lanterns. Lanterns of various shapes and sizes, related with folklore, holiday customs or lucky mascots, are hung in the streets with a bright moon illuminating the sky, which attracts countless visitors. Children stroll excitedly in the streets, carrying lamps they have bought or made themselves.

Across China, the festival is celebrated in many different ways. In the north, the combination of the ice and snow with coloured lights, carvings, designs, and special scenery yield a spectacular winter paradise. In places near water, people put lotus lanterns in the river to let them flow down the stream, as a mark of respect for relatives who have passed away.

Eating Yuan Xiao

Just like China's other traditional holidays, the festival also has its own special food - Yuan Xiao are small rice dumplings made of glutinous rice flour with rose petals, or sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil as filling. People eat Yuan Xiao on this day. That's why the festival is also called Yuan Xiao Festival. Yuan Xiao also has another name, Tang Yuan. As it is always round and white, Yuan Xiao represents the moon on the night of the festival. What's more, Tang Yuan in Chinese has a similar pronunciation with "tuan yuan" meaning reunion. So people eat them to denote union, harmony and happiness for the family.

Guessing lantern riddles

Guessing lantern riddles is a special word game played by the Chinese people. The traditional riddles were written on lanterns. Today, people write the riddles on a piece of paper and glue them on the lanterns. If viewers have solutions to them, they can pull out the paper and check the answers with the riddles' creators. If correct, they will get a small prize. The activity emerged during people's enjoyment of lanterns in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). As riddle guessing is interesting and full of wisdom, it has become popular among all social strata.

Other activities

During the festival, in the daytime, performances such as a dragon lantern dance, a lion dance, a land boat dance, a yangge dance, walking on stilts and beating drums while dancing will be staged. On the night, except for magnificent lanterns, fireworks form a beautiful scene. Most families spare some fireworks from the Spring Festival and let them off in the Lantern Festival. Some local governments will even organise a fireworks party. When the first full moon enters the new year, people become really intoxicated by the imposing fireworks and bright moon in the sky.

Huiping Song is director of the political section at the Embassy of China in Jamaica.

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