Introducing Lantern Festival

By Ismary Munet

For many, every year, February 14th is marked on the calendar as Valentine’s day, but for 2014 it will also mark the day for the Lantern Festival of the Lunar New Year. Chinese Lantern Festival, which is the last day of Chinese Lunar New Year, was considered the “Valentine’s Day” in ancient China, where girls only came outdoors during the festivities, which made this day an ideal opportunity for couples meetings and dates. The coincidence that Chinese Lantern Festival shares the same day as St. Valentine’s Day comes but once every 20 years! 

The Lantern Festival, also known as Chap Goh Mei in China or Shangyuan Festival, is usually observed by the Chinese and Vietnamese. Celebrating the Lantern Festival concludes the Chinese New Year celebration and festivities.

The festival traditionally honors the celebration and cultivation of relationships between people, families, nature, and higher beings responsible for the return of light each year. Like Valentine’s day, it is also traditionally a day for lovers and romance. In the past, chaperoned women would come out to be seen by suitable single men.

The Festival, also called Yuan Xiao in China, is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the lunar year, which is the first full moon of that year. According to tradition, when there is a radiant full moon, thousands of brilliant and colorful lanterns should be hung out for people to admire. During the festival, people try to solve puzzles on the lanterns, eat rice balls and yuanxiao dumplings, and enjoy a family reunion.

There are many versions of the festival’s origins, but most commonly involve a young palace maid named Yuan-Xiao, for which the festival itself and its food is named after, who wanted to be reunited with her family. The maid was able to persuade the emperor that unless the city looked like it was burning the god of fire would set the city ablaze. From then on, the emperor ordered that red lanterns be hung and firecrackers also be set off along the streets.

The traditional food for the Lantern Festival is Yuanxiao dumplings, which origin stories say the maid Yuan-Xiao prepared for the god of fire as this was her favorite food. The dumplings are usually made with sticky rice flour, can be sweet and savory, and are filled with everything from sugar to meats and vegetables.

In the past, the brightest lanterns in the festival symbolized good luck and hope. The yearly festival also incorporates people letting go of their lanterns symbolizing letting go of past selves, and starting a new self with the new year.

In China, the people still hold onto these traditions and even have a lantern fair each year. In Chinatown, the Lantern Festival includes music, dancing, games, food, and the decoration with brightly colored lanterns as a lively way to end the Lunar New Year celebration.

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