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The Lantern Festival: End of the Chinese New Year

Published: February 5, 2023
People gather ahead of the Cap Go Meh Festival in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, on February 4, 2023. The Cap Go Meh Festival, also known as Yuanxiao festival in China, marks the 15th and final day of the Lunar New Year celebrations. (Image: CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP via Getty Images)

This year, the Chinese lunar new year fell on Jan. 22 — marking day 1 of the 1st lunar month (正月初一) in the Year of the Rabbit, according to the traditional calendar. Fifteen days later marks the Lantern Festival, which formally ends the holiday season in China and a number of other Asian countries. 

According to the Western Gregorian calendar, this year’s Lantern Festival is celebrated on Feb. 5. 

The 15th day of the 1st lunar month is the first full moon of the new year, giving it special significance as the day of the Lantern Festival, which in Chinese is called yuan xiao jie (元宵節, pronounced roughly “ywehn shyao jyeh”). And just like the New Year itself, it is one of the most celebrated holidays across Asia. 

The origin of the Lantern Festival

While the Lantern Festival is now known as the conclusion of new year festivities, it is actually one of three traditional events intended to worship and celebrate great gods. 

Chinese lanterns
Every year during the Chinese Lantern Festival, people hang up red lanterns to create a festive atmosphere because lanterns are a symbol of reunion. (Image: Dante Tee; Pexels; )

In Daoist terminology, the 15th day of the 1st month is considered the birthday of the Deity of Heaven and it was called shang yuan (上元節), which literally means the Upper Yuan Festival. “Upper” also means “first.”

The character 元 (yuan) has a variety of meanings depending on the situation, but generally refers to the “beginning” or “origin.”

Two related festivals, the zhong yuan (中元節, or Middle Yuan) and xia yuan (下元節, the Lower Yuan), celebrated the gods of Humanity and Earth. They fell on July 15 and Oct. 15 of the lunar calendar, respectively. 

The lighting tradition that gives this festival its English name was first established more than 2,000 years ago when Emperor Wu of Han lit lanterns in his palace to worship the God of Heaven.

Detail of an ancient Chinese painting showing the Jade Emperor and his celestial court. (Image: Anonymous/Sotheby’s/via Wikimedia Commons)

By the Eastern Han Dynasty, Buddhism arrived in China. Emperor Ming ordered lanterns be lit on the 15th to show respect not only to gods of the Daoist faith, but also in veneration of the Buddha’s teachings. 

And this time, it was not limited to the imperial palace and temples: the emperor invited all citizens to light and hang lanterns in celebration. From this point on, lighting lanterns became popular among common people  and eventually developed into a grand celebration on January 15th of the lunar calendar. 

As the Lantern Festival got larger and larger in scale, more and more forms of entertainment became available. People would organize large events of lantern displays that include large colorful lanterns in a variety of shapes.

The lanterns are usually accompanied by the classic dragon dance and various acrobatic performances. Stalls selling lanterns and other hand made items would line the streets, as well as food carts.

The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Chinese lunar new year celebrations. It is the 15th day of the first lunar month, and features the first full moon of the year. (Image: Public Domain)

A painting from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) depicts the scene where street performers were invited to the palace for the royal family to join in on the fun. A Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) painting shows a similar scene. 

Riddles, rice balls, and a full moon

The custom of attaching riddles to lanterns was believed to be first developed during the Song Dynasty. Small strips of cloth were attached to the lantern body, and whoever could solve the riddle would get a small prize, sometimes even the lantern itself!

Glutinous rice balls were first developed in the Song Dynasty and later became a must-have food item during the Lantern Festival. But many love them so much that they eat them all year round. 

It has two different names — yuan xiao and tang yuan — depending on how it’s made. If it’s made like a dumpling by wrapping the filling inside, then it’s called Tang yuan (湯圓). 

Tangyuan. (Image: Reedz Malik via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Yuan xiao (元宵) on the other hand is made by rolling the filling in glutinous rice flour. This is the same word as the one that appears in yuan xiao jie, the Chinese name of the Lantern Festival. “Yuan xiao” simply means “the night of Yuan.” 

Yuan Xiao Jie marks the first full moon of the new lunar year so it makes sense for people to admire the moon on this day. A full moon is round, therefore it also symbolizes reunion with family.

Chinese scholars love to write poems on this occasion as well. Rope jumping was a popular activity for kids and women during the Lantern Festival, especially during the Ming and Qing dynasties. 

Preparing for and enjoying the Lantern Festival in ancient China. (Image: via Sohu)
The Lantern Festival provided an opportunity for girls and women to take part in public activities during the celebrations. (Image: via Sohu)

There was also a unique tradition for ladies, who didn’t get to step out of the house very often in ancient times. But on this day, everyone from little girls to grandmas would all go out and walk across a bridge or multiple bridges. This was believed to help get rid of all illnesses in the coming year. The festival also provided a rare opportunity for young ladies to meet men and subtly express interest in them. 

According to ancient text from the Ming Dynasty, ladies would wear white tops when crossing the bridge. Later on, the bridge-crossing tradition was interpretively expanded to climbing mountains, walking on the street, and even walking on the ice in the northern Chinese regions. 

Another tradition for ancient ladies was done in secret at first. Ming Dynasty ladies believed touching the studs on palace doors would grant them their wish of getting a son. By the Qing Dynasty, it was not a secret anymore, and ladies would line up to touch the door studs as a matter of ritual. And today, tourists in Beijing all take photos while touching door studs around the gates of the Forbidden City, which probably originated from the ladies’ tradition. 

This article is partially based on Ally’s original video about the Lantern Festival, available on her YouTube channel Five Thousand Years