The Chinese Lantern Festival, Yuan Xiao Jie!

February 24, 2013 9:54 pm Last Updated: June 24, 2015 8:44 pm

The Lantern Festival ends the 15-day celebration of Chinese New Year. As a result, it is an exciting festival that draws huge crowds of people out to celebrate under the full moon. This year, it fell on Feb. 24th in the Gregorian calendar.

Called 元宵節 (yuán xiāo jié), or Yuanxiao Festival, in Chinese, the Lantern Festival is held on the 15th day of the first lunar month. That is the first night of the year in which a full moon can be viewed.

The word yuan (元 ) refers to the first month, while xiao (宵) means night, and jie (節) means festival. Therefore, Yuanxiao Jie is a night festival held during the first month of the year, partly as a celebration to end the New Year’s celebrations, and partly to celebrate the first full moon. Though the Mid-Autumn Festival is sometimes also called the Lantern Festival in the West, the Yuanxiao Festival is a distinctly different celebration.

 A family event, the Lantern Festival brings families out with their children to take part in games and activities. During the day, or sometimes at night as well, schools will set up performances and competitions, which often include solving riddles and word-guessing games that allow children to practice language and problem-solving skills. Festivities can also include dancing, fireworks, and drumming.

Traditionally, 湯圓 (tang yuán), or glutinous rice balls, would be eaten at night. These sticky rice balls are usually stuffed with sweet fillings, most commonly black sesame paste, though they can also be filled with sugared tangerine peels, walnuts, and red bean paste.

The pronunciation of tang yuán is very similar to the pronunciation of 团圆 (tuán yuán), or reunion, so the round, rice balls symbolize family coming together. Eating them is meant to bring happiness and good luck to the family in the New Year.

Whole families may go outdoors to eat these treats under the full moon. Since these rice balls are specifically eaten during this festival, they are sometimes just called 元宵 (yuán xiāo), after the festival.

At night, the most beautiful part of the celebration begins as the “lanterns” of the Yuanxiao Festival are lit. These lanterns symbolize letting go of the old and welcoming in the new.

Thousands of colorful lanterns outdoors is also a way of lighting up the night so people can enjoy the full moon.

After dinner, children spill into the streets with the lit lanterns. Parents accompany their children and meet up with friends to chat.

In ancient times, the lanterns were handmade out of paper with a simple candle inside. The outside was hand-decorated and painted with pretty designs. The children of the aristocrats would have ornate lanterns of lavishly painted, cut paper.

Every child carried a lantern to light the way as they strolled through the streets with their families. Sometimes, the paper lanterns would have puzzles written on them for children to solve.  If they solved the puzzles correctly, the children would receive a little gift.

These days, lanterns are usually made of plastic in the shapes of animals, often Chinese zodiac animals, and lit by a battery-powered light. Shops and buildings also hang strings of lanterns from their doorways, and lanterns are also hung at temples. In some parts of the world, lantern competitions are held, dazzling the crowds with their size, beauty, and scope.

According to various legends of the origin of the festival, the lanterns have served many purposes, over the years—as beacons, signals, or ruses. Now, on this special day, they are colorful symbols of peace and prosperity.

Best wishes to all throughout the New Year!

Read more about the origins of the Lantern Festival here