The 15th day of the lunar calendar marks the end of the Chinese New Year. This day, the first full moon night of the Chinese lunar year, has traditionally been celebrated with a lantern festival during which people gather together to enjoy a display of brightly coloured lanterns, entertainment and festive food.

Origins of the Lantern Festival

Though the history of this festival dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 221 A.D.), it’s actual origin is a matter of debate. It has been variously ascribed to:

Taiya, the God of Heaven

As this god controlled the destiny of the human world and could inflict a range of calamities if displeased, it was thought prudent by the emperors to propitiate him with a lavish ceremony each year. Indeed, Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty proclaimed this ceremony to be the most important of the calendar.

A Taoist Birthday

A Taoist version of the lantern festival’s origin links it to the Taoist god, Tianguan whose birthday fell on the 15th day of the first lunar month.

Legend

Yet another interpretation has it that in ancient times villagers killed a beautiful bird which was a favourite of the celestial Jade Emperor. In retaliation, the Jade Emperor planned to destroy the village in a fire storm. The villagers, warned by the Emperor’s daughter, lit bonfires, hung lanterns around their houses and set off fireworks to make it look like their village was on fire. The Emperor’s troops were deceived by this ruse and returned to the Emperor to report that the village had already been destroyed. This narrow escape was celebrated each year afterwards with a lantern festival.

Whatever its origins, the lantern festival has become an integral part of Chinese New Year celebrations and festivals are held in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and in many countries where the Chinese have settled.

Entertainment, Riddles…and Food!

As well as the making and display of lanterns, the celebrations also involve traditional Chinese entertainment. Depending on the venue, this might include such spectacles as lion dancing, stick puppet shows, stilt walkers and demonstrations of martial arts.

Riddles, too, are often attached to the lanterns and it is part of the fun for passersby to try to solve them.

And, of course, there is food. The dish most associated with the lantern festival is yuanxiao, small dumplings made of glutinous rice flour with sweet or spicy fillings. These are said to symbolise the full moon and family unity.

The Auckland Lantern Festival

Each year since 2000 a lantern festival has been held in Auckland’s Albert Park. Run by the Asia New Zealand Foundation in partnership with Auckland City, it has become one of the must-see events of the city. Held over three nights in early February, it regularly attracts over 150,000 people. In 2010 the festival will be held from the 26th to the 28th of February.

The beautiful lanterns set against the night sky, the thrill of experiencing another culture and the celebration of the new year all make the Chinese Lantern Festival an enriching and exciting event.

Chinese Lantern Festival – An Enriching Cultural Experience, 2.5 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

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