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Travelogue: What is the Lantern Festival?
By Megan Zhang
During Lantern Festival, houses are decked out with colorful displays of lanterns, and children are often given small ones to hold. /CFP

During Lantern Festival, houses are decked out with colorful displays of lanterns, and children are often given small ones to hold. /CFP

As the two-week Spring Festival celebrations draw to a close, people are counting down the days until the celebrations for the Year of the Ox.

While the start of the festivities is certainly significant, the end is equally so. In fact, the final day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations in China is a holiday called the Lantern Festival, or yuanxiao jie. It falls annually on the 15th day of the first lunar month, and has many traditions associated with it.

During the Lantern Festival, houses are decked out with colorful displays of lanterns, and children are often given small ones to hold. The lanterns come in all shapes and sizes, resembling animals, fruits, and symbols of good fortune in Chinese culture.

It's also customary for riddles to be written on the lanterns, a tradition that's said to go back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279). The one who guesses the answer correctly can take the paper slip containing the riddle to the lantern's owner and claim a small prize.

Don't forget to light up your home for Lantern Festival! /CFP

Don't forget to light up your home for Lantern Festival! /CFP

The Lantern Festival also sees communities holding parades, letting off fireworks and, nowadays, putting on drone shows featuring a vivid light display. Light, as a common theme of Lantern Festival decorations, represents the fading away of the dark winter and the long-awaited arrival of spring.

At its heart, the Lantern Festival focuses on family togetherness, with several generations closing out the Chinese New Year festivities and celebrations together. It's customary for families to prepare glutinous rice balls, called yuanxiao or tangyuan, for the special day, as the round shapes are believed to symbolize family unity. The balls are often stuffed with fruit, nuts, and seed paste, before being boiled and served.

Lantern Festival isn't complete without a steaming bowl of sweet tangyuan. /CFP

Lantern Festival isn't complete without a steaming bowl of sweet tangyuan. /CFP

While stories about the origins of the Lantern Festival abound, one of the most widely-known tells how, during the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), Buddhist monks would often light the lanterns in their temples on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Eventually, the emperor ordered all lanterns to be lit on this evening, and the practice developed into a folk tradition. 

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