The Lantern Festival is a Chinese festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunisolar year in the lunar calendar marking the last day of the lunar New Year celebration. It is usually in February or March in the Gregorian calendar. As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), it had become a festival with great significance. During the Lantern Festival, children go out at night to temples carrying paper lanterns and solve riddles on the lanterns .
In ancient times, the lanterns were fairly simple, and only the emperor and noblemen had large ornate ones . In modern times, lanterns have been embellished with many complex designs. For example, lanterns are now often made in the shape of animals. The lanterns can symbolize the people letting go of their past selves and getting new ones, which they will let go of the next year. The lanterns are almost always red to symbolize good fortune.
In Hong Kong, it is commercialized as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine's Day. It is not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival; which is sometimes also known as the "Lantern Festival" in locations such as Singapore and Malaysia.
The first month of the lunisolar calendar is called the yuan month, and in olden times night was called xiao in Mandarin. Therefore, the day is called Yuan Xiao Festival in China. The fifteenth day is the first full moon of that lunisolar year. According to Taoist tradition, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, Shàngyuán, corresponds to the "Official of Heaven," who enjoys bright and joyful objects, so there should be thousands of colorful lanterns hung out for people to appreciate. At this time, people will try to solve puzzles on lanterns, eat glutinous rice balls named after the festival, yuanxiao (also known as tangyuan and enjoy a family reunion.
There are many different beliefs about the origin of the Lantern Festival. However, one likely origin is the celebration of "the declining darkness of winter" and community's ability to "move about at night with human-made light," namely, lanterns. During the Han Dynasty, the festival was connected to Ti Yin, the deity of the North Star.
One legend tells us that it was a time to worship Taiyi, the God of Heaven in ancient times. The belief was that the God of Heaven controlled the destiny of the human world. He had sixteen dragons at his beck and call and he decided when to inflict drought, storms, famine or pestilence upon human beings. Beginning with Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who named China, all the emperors ordered splendid ceremonies each year. The emperor would ask Taiyi to bring favorable weather and good health to him and his people .
Wudi of the Han Dynasty directed special attention to this event. In 104 BCE, he proclaimed it to be one of the most important celebrations and the ceremony would last throughout the night.
Another legend associates the Lantern Festival with Taoism. Tianguan is the Taoist god responsible for good fortune. His birthday falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. It is said that Tianguan likes all types of entertainment, so followers prepare various kinds of activities during which they pray for good fortune .
Another legend associates the Lantern Festival with an ancient warrior name Lan Moon, who led a rebellion against the tyrannical king in ancient China. He was killed in the storming of the city and the successful rebels commemorated the festival in his name .
Yet another common legend dealing with the origins of the Lantern Festival speaks of a beautiful crane that flew down to earth from heaven. After it landed on earth it was hunted and killed by some villagers. This angered the Jade Emperor in heaven because the crane was his favorite. So, he planned a storm of fire to destroy the village on the fifteenth lunar day. The Jade Emperor's daughter warned the inhabitants of her father’s plan to destroy their village. The village was in turmoil because nobody knew how they could escape their imminent destruction. However, a wise man from another village suggested that every family should hang red lanterns around their houses, set up bonfires on the streets, and explode firecrackers on the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth lunar days. This would give the village the appearance of being on fire to the Jade Emperor. On the fifteenth lunar day, troops sent down from heaven whose mission was to destroy the village saw that the village was already ablaze, and returned to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor. Satisfied, the Jade Emperor decided not to burn down the village. From that day on, people celebrate the anniversary on the fifteenth lunar day every year by carrying lanterns on the streets and exploding firecrackers and fireworks .
Another legend about the origins of Lantern Festival involves a maid named Yuan-Xiao. In the Han Dynasty, Dongfang Shuo was a favorite adviser of the emperor. One winter day, he went to the garden and heard a little girl crying and getting ready to jump into a well to commit suicide. Dongfang stopped her and asked why. She said she was Yuan-Xiao, a maid in the emperor's palace and that she never had a chance to see her family since she started working there. If she could not have the chance to show her filial piety in this life, she would rather die. Dongfang promised to find a way to reunite her with her family. Dongfang left the palace and set up a fortune-telling stall on the street. Due to his reputation, many people asked for their fortunes to be told but everyone got the same prediction - a calamitous fire on the fifteenth lunar day. The rumor spread quickly .
Everyone was worried about the future and asked Dongfang for help. Dongfang said that on the thirteenth lunar day, the God of Fire would send a fairy in red riding a black horse to burn down the city. When people saw the fairy they should ask for her mercy. On that day, Yuan-Xiao pretended to be the red fairy. When people asked for her help, she said that she had a copy of a decree from the God of Fire that should be taken to the emperor. After she left, people went to the palace to show the emperor the decree which stated that the capital city would burn down on the fifteenth. The emperor asked Dongfang for advice. Dongfang said that the God of Fire liked to eat tangyuan (sweet dumplings). Yuan-Xiao should cook tangyuan on the fifteenth lunar day and the emperor should order every house to prepare tangyuan to worship the God of Fire at the same time. Also, every house in the city should hang red lantern and explode fire crackers. Lastly, everyone in the palace and people outside the city should carry their lanterns on the street to watch the lantern decorations and fireworks. The Jade Emperor would be deceived and everyone would avoid the disastrous fire.
The emperor happily followed the plan. Lanterns were everywhere in the capital city on the night of the fifteenth lunar day. People were walking on the street. Fire crackers kept making lots of noise. It looked like the entire city was on fire. Yuan-Xiao's parents went into the palace to watch the lantern decorations and were reunited with their daughter. The emperor decreed that people should do the same thing every year. Since Yuan-Xiao cooked the best tangyuan, people called the day Yuan-Xiao Festival.