One February morning many years ago, I walked into my first grade classroom to find it decked out with a plethora of red, ornately decorated glowing lanterns. As morning meeting got underway, our teacher explained that it was the Chinese Lantern Festival which marked the first full moon of the traditional Chinese calendar and was the culmination of the Chinese New Year festivities bringing a glorious end to fifteen days of feasting and celebration. As we listened, our eyes transfixed of the colorful lanterns, we heard the story of a poor servant girl who wanted to leave her master’s home and marry her beloved suitor. She went to her employer and begged to be released. Since she was a good worker, he did not want to let her go, but he did not want to appear to be a tyrant. Attempting to outsmart her, he agreed that not only would he release her from her duties but would also pay for her wedding and new home if she could perform two simple tasks, the first being to press enough oil from seeds to fill the ocean. The servant girl immediately sat and began pressing seeds to extract oil and told her master to go measure the ocean and let her know the exact amount of oil she needed to press. Knowing such a task was beyond him, he released her from her obligation. The second task she must perform, he informed her, was to bring him fire encased in paper. If she was able to perform such a feat, she would be free to marry with his blessing. The servant girl went away and thought about how she might accomplish such a seemingly impossible task. Three nights later, she returned to her master carrying a glowing orb made of vibrantly colored paper wrapped around wires in the center of which fire burned! Seeing that the girl had in fact done what he had asked of her, the master had no choice but to release her from her duties and as promised he paid for her wedding and built her a lavish home where she could live with her husband. When our teacher finished the story, the entire class erupted into happy applause for the servant girl who thanks to her own ingenuity could at last marry her beloved suitor.
The lantern festival is a lighthearted celebration that no doubt has ancient origins related to the increasing daylight hours as spring grows ever closer. Similar festivals of light exist in various cultures throughout the world, Hanukkah and Diwali for example, but what is interesting about the lantern festival is that is does not occur during the darkest days of the year, but rather close to the end of the winter when daylight is rapidly increasing. It is also very much a celebration of the heavens as the moon and stars figure heavily into the symbolism associated with the lantern festival. The celebration itself occurs on the full moon immediately following Chinese New Year and is believed to have been celebrated during the Han Dynasty in honor of Ti Yin the Taoist god associated with the North Star. The glowing lanterns that dot the landscape on this night are symbolic of the moon and stars that light the night sky.
Today the Lantern Festivals is celebrated in cities and villages throughout Chinese and the Chinese diaspora as a carnival like event similar to Mardi Gras or even to Halloween in certain aspects. Lanterns of course abound in all shapes and forms. The traditional lanterns are round and dark red in color as red is the color of good luck in Chinese folk religion, however in recent years lanterns have become enormous, elaborate constructions resembling dragons and other creatures from Chinese folklore and popular culture that are truly works of art. Traditionally, it was also common to hollow out giant white radishes and carve faces into them and place a candle inside to create lanterns similar to the western jack-o-lantern. The telling and solving of riddles is popular on this night, perhaps in relation to the tale of the servant girl. It is also a night of love on which many people choose to propose marriage. In years past, it was an especially busy time for professional matchmakers who worked hard on the days leading up the event to make suitable matches for their clients and earn sizeable commissions. In present day China, the lantern festival has taken on many of the traditions associated with Valentine’s Day in the west. This is especially true in Hong Kong where it is common for lovers to exchange gifts, cards and sweets on this night. The association with the Lantern Festival and lovers can perhaps be traced back to ancient times as can be seen again in the story of the servant girl who ensured her marriage to her beloved suitor with the help of a lantern. Whatever the origins, there is no denying that an air of magic and lighthearted happiness hangs over this night.
This year the Lantern Festival falls on February 22. I urge you to have some fun on this night with family and friends. In the spirit of the holiday, illuminate the night with a lantern or some candles and spend some time contemplating the night sky. I thank you for taking the time to check out my blog and I wish you a joyous Lantern Festival and much happiness always!