The Chinese Lantern Festival is the first important festival in China after Spring festival. It starts 15 days after the Chinese New Year and celebrates the first bright full moon of the lunar year. It is called the lantern festival because its most important activity revolves around watching a sea of beautiful lighted Chinese lanterns.
The history of this important festival dates back more than 2000 years and stems from the time that Buddhism just about started to flourish. Monks at the temple would light lanterns in respect of Buddha. Emperor Hanmingdi, who reigned during the Han Dynasty, observed this ritual and in an attempt to popularize Buddhism gave orders to light lanterns in the imperial palaces to show Buddha respect on this 15th day of the first lunar month. This tradition was kept alive by other dynasties in the centuries that followed and evolved into a national Chinese festive tradition.
Legend has it that a long time ago people’s lives and safety were continuously at risk from wild beasts and fierce animals. To protect themselves the Chinese would attack and eliminate these animals. Unfortunately a holy bird from heaven accidentally got lost and ended up in the mortal world where it was killed by an ignorant hunter. The Heaven Emperor was livid and ordered to set fire to the world on the 15th day of the first month. His daughter pitied the immortals and descended secretly from heaven one night, to warn the Chinese people about their impending doom. The people were scared and confused about what they should do to prevent this disaster. An old man came up with a solution. He told every family should light up lanterns and fireworks on the 14th, 15th and 16th day of the 1st lunar month to deceive the Heaven Emperor into thinking that his plan was executed. The plan worked and everyone lived happily ever after. From that day onward people light up their lanterns and set off fireworks on the 15th day of the first lunar month to celebrate this success.
Another more likely explanation is that it celebrated the declining darkness of winter, the light of the lanterns symbolizing brightness.
Different customs and tradition are held during the Lantern Festival from children decorating lanterns, to solving riddles, watching special dances and watching the fireworks.
One essential custom is eating so called Yuanxiao. Yuanxiao is a dumpling ball made of sticky rice flour and stuffed with different fillings. Its round shape stands for reunion, togetherness and happiness. Families sit together during the night of the festival to enjoy their dumplings and the beauty of the full moon.
The Lion Dance
In ancient times people regarded the lion as a symbol of strength. They believed it would drive away evil and protect. The performance of lion dances during the Lantern Festival and other big celebrations has become a custom that induces good fortune and safety.
A big part of the tradition in addition to entertainment, lanterns and food is solving riddles. The riddles are written on a strip of paper and pasted to the lanterns. If you guess the riddle correctly you can take the paper and you will receive a gift.
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