This Feb. 19 is the 15th day of the first lunar month, making it the last day of traditional Chinese New Year festivities. Because of the religious origins of the festival, in which monks would light lanterns, its Western name has come to reflect this tradition. But in Chinese, the date is known as yuan xiao jie (元宵), or the festival of yuanxiao.
On this day, Chinese eat yuanxiao and tangyuan, which are variants of a glutinous rice ball snack. They come with fillings of sweetened black sesame seeds, nuts, fruit, and sometimes meat. Yuanxiao are fluffier and more popular in the north, while tangyuan are smoother in texture and are eaten more frequently by southerners.
The legend of Yuanxiao
In Chinese folklore, Yuanxiao was not originally a kind of food, but a girl who lived in the imperial palace during the Han Dynasty under the reign of Emperor Wu. Unable to return home to see her parents, she wept bitterly in luxurious seclusion.
Yuanxiao’s sadness touched a minister, who devised a plan for her to enjoy a family reunion. Posing as a fortune teller in a busy street, the minister told everyone that bad luck was on the horizon. There would be a massive fire on the 15th of the first lunar month, he said, causing much panic among those who listened. Soon, word of the impending catastrophe reached the emperor.
Emperor Wu gathered his officials together to think of a solution. The minister who knew Yuanxiao immediately presented his answer: the god of fire, it was said, liked to eat sweetened dumplings. Naturally, if he were served such a treat, the calamity would not take place.
It so happened that Yuanxiao was the best at making the dish, so the task fell upon her. For good measure, in case the fire god was still not appeased, the entire city was ordered to light lanterns to make it appear as though fire was raging in the streets
On the 15th, the evening of the predicted calamity, Yuanxiao and other palace ladies carried bowls of her dumplings as they walked in procession through the streets. Meanwhile, all the commoners came out to light lanterns, and Yuanxiao was reunited with her parents.
As the minister predicted, no fire scorched the city. To recognize Yuanxiao’s service, the day was named for her, as was the dish she had prepared.
Celebrating Buddha and divinity
Like many other traditions as old as that of the Lantern Festival, however, its origins and meanings are deep and varied. For instance, an important aspect concerning the end of the new year festivities is that the 15th of the first lunar month is said to be the birthday of the God of Heaven.
Since the God of Heaven has power over the destiny of the human world and decides when to inflict drought, storms, famine, or plagues upon human beings, one of the emperor’s traditional duties was to pray to him for good weather and health on the day of the Lantern Festival. This practice can be traced back to at least as far as the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Even though Qin united the entire country through wars of conquest, built the Great Wall, and ruled through a harsh system of totalitarian laws, even he was in awe of the natural forces and paid his respects to Heaven by holding pious ceremonies.
Another legend comes from a time shortly following Buddhism’s introduction to China via India.
During the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220), Emperor Ming dispatched a scholar to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from India and further Chinese appreciation of its dharma or teachings. After many years, and having traveled thousands of miles through perilous deserts and high mountains, the scholar returned on the 15th of the first month.
To represent the Buddha’s power, which was said to dispel all darkness, Emperor Ming ordered that lanterns be lit for several days across the empire. Such decrees continued into the Tang and Song dynasties, 1,000 years after the Eastern Han was no more.
Aside from celebrations of the gods and Buddha, the date of the Lantern Festival is also the first time the full moon is visible in the Chinese new year. Like the Mid-Autumn Festival that falls on the 15th of the eighth month, the Lantern Festival is also a time of family gathering.
While enjoying the full moon in the company of family and eating sweet dumplings, another traditional activity is the telling and solving of “lantern riddles.” The riddles are written on slips of paper tied to lanterns or directly onto the lanterns themselves. The answers usually involve puns or point at some deeper principle. Some typical examples:
1. What belongs to you, but others use it more than you do?
Answer: Your name.
2. It’s been around for millions of years, but it’s no more than a month old. What is it?
Answer: The face of the moon, which has always existed, but always disappears by the end of the month.
3. He devotes his life to looking after the house. His mate always follows when the master goes out. A gentleman sees him and goes away. A villain sees him and it spells bad luck. Who is he?
Answer: A lock. When a gentleman sees it, he knows the master is away and he will leave and come back later. When a villain sees it, he will try to pry it open and break into the house.