What is the Lantern Festival? Meaning behind the Chinese New Year celebration marked by a Google Doodle today

Lunar New Year is almost over, but one last festival is set to finish it off.

The Lantern Festival is one of the most visually exciting holidays of the entire Chinese New year period.

Here’s everything you need to know.

When is the Lantern Festival?

The festival falls on the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar, and marks the final day of lunar new year celebrations.

So this year it is on Tuesday 15 February.

What is it about?

The Lantern Festival is also called yuan xiao festivaland it is celebrated in China and other Asian countries that honor deceased ancestors.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica says: “The Lantern Festival aims to promote reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness. The holiday marks the first full moon of the new lunar year and the end of the Chinese New Year.

How did the Lantern Festival start?

Encyclopaedia Britannica says: “The Lantern Festival may originate as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), when Buddhist monks would light lanterns on the 15th day of the lunar year in honor of the Buddha.

“The rite was later adopted by the general population and spread throughout China and other parts of Asia.

More on Chinese New Year

“A legend concerning the festival’s origin tells the tale of the Jade Emperor (You Di), who became angered at a town for killing his goose. He planned to destroy the town with fire, but he was thwarted by a fairy who advised the people to light lanterns across the town on the appointed day of destruction.

“The emperor, fooled by all the light, assumed the town was already engulfed in flames. The town was spared, and in gratitude the people continued to commemorate the event annually by carrying colorful lanterns throughout the town.”

In Taiwan, legend says that mountain farmers in ancient Taiwan used to release float lanterns into the sky as a way to reassure their family members that they were safe.

The custom is believed to have started in the small hillside town of Pingxi, which has turned it into an unlikely tourist hotspot.

To honor its folklore, the Taiwanese Government made the official festival in 1990.

How is it celebrated?

There are many amazing events to mark the festival across China and Taiwan.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica says: “During the festival, houses are festooned with colorful lanterns, often with riddles written on them; if the riddle is answered correctly, the solver earns a small gift.

“Festival celebrations also include lion and dragon dances, parades, and fireworks. Small glutinous rice balls filled with fruits and nuts, called yuanxiao or tangyuan, are eaten during the festival. The round shape of the balls symbolizes wholeness and unity within the family.”

People write messages of hope for the new year on their lanterns, or paint pictures of animals like pandas and cats. These each have their own meaning, such as prosperity or good luck in love. The lanterns symbolically carry these wishes to the heavens.

The day has come to be about more than just lanterns, with other traditions enveloped in.

There is the Yanshui Fireworks Festival, regarded as one of the most dangerous firework events in the world. It sees people in thick protective clothing set off large structures decked with firecrackers.

The event is in thanks to a god named Guan Gong, who the townspeople believe rescued them from a plague during the 19th century.

There is also the Bombing of Master Han Dan, which takes place in the southern city of Taitung.

This equally dangerous tradition sees volunteers dress up as the god of wealth, Master Han Dan, wearing nothing but red shorts and a scarf.

People then throw firecrackers at him, which they believe helps Master Han Dan grow in power.

What is the Google Doodle?

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the festival.

Today’s Google Doodle marks the holiday (Photo: Google)

Google says: “Today’s Doodle celebrates the Lantern Festival on the first full moon of the Lunar calendar. Traditions call for celebrants to light lanterns and send them floating into the sky as a symbolic act that honors one’s ancestors and symbolizes the release of the past while shining a light on the year to come.

“Modern-day celebrations of the Lantern Festival have ancient roots. Stretching back over 2,000 years to the start of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the customs that characterize the holiday are a testament to the power of China’s oral storytelling traditions. The most common type of lantern seen across the skies today are small orbs, but many artisans create unique designs that take on all sizes and shapes—from giant dragons to lanterns small enough for children to carry.

“To add an extra element of fun, many people slip small pieces of paper inscribed with riddles inside their lanterns. Some riddles are even made so difficult, they’ve earned the nickname “lantern tigers,” as it’s said it’s easier to fight a tiger than solve them!

“Happy Lantern Festival!”


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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