With their massive, brightly colored lanterns, Chinese lantern festivals are a feast for the eyes. Brilliantly lit structures illuminate the night sky. Traditionally dressed dancers parade through the streets accompanied by drummers. This awe-inspiring festival has deep roots in China. Now, it’s beginning to make its way across the United States.
When Does the Lantern Festival Happen?
In China, the lantern festival is held at the end of the Chinese New Year. The festival coincides with the first full moon of the Chinese lunar year. This date changes from year to year, but it’s usually in February. In the United States, these festivals can happen at any time. Many cities hold them around Christmas.
History of the Lantern Festival
The lantern festival, which is also called Yuan Xiao, has been a tradition in China for more than 2,000 years. It’s a time for family, friends, and fun. Everyone in the community comes out to celebrate together. This was particularly significant in centuries past when women lived more sheltered live. During the lantern festival, they were allowed to emerge into society. People also thought of the festival as a matchmaking opportunity. It was common to see parents try to match young people. At various points in Chinese history, the festival had religious and political undertones, depending on the emperor of the time. Today, the tradition of community and fun endures, and you’ll often see large groups out enjoying the festival together.
About the Lantern Festival
During a lantern festival, residents and communities get involved. Entire cities come to life with brightly colored lanterns. Residents hang them from their porches and fences. Businesses get into the spirit by decorating their facilities. Often, towns decorate main streets with garlands of lanterns. Some areas even commission artists to design massive lanterns that double as works of art. At night, visitors and locals walk through the streets to enjoy the lanterns in their fully-lit glory.
The lanterns are only one part of the lantern festival. In many communities, the event also includes a variety of cultural performances. Chinese acrobats perform feats of daring, and musical groups entertain the grounds. You might even see processions with massive dragons, lions, and other traditional Chinese characters.
Meanings of the Lanterns
During any lantern festival, the most common lantern you’ll see is a small, round orb. These traditional lanterns are usually red. This color symbolizes good fortune in Chinese culture. People often hung them in long strands. Historically, only the wealthiest people in society could afford to decorate with larger, more ornate lanterns. Today, you’ll see a wide variety of styles and shapes. It’s common to see animal-shaped lanterns that represent the zodiac Chinese year.
Lantern Festivals in the United States
The lantern festival is common in China, but it’s only held once a year. If you live in the United States, you may have the opportunity to see this colorful festival at different times. Thanks to companies out of China, many cities are putting their own twist on the celebrations. The companies bring in custom lanterns. They may also bring over touring groups of acrobats or performers from China for the full cultural experience.
If you’re in the eastern part of the country, Knoxville hosts the Dragon Lights Festival. It’s one of the largest celebrations in the area. In Cary, North Carolina, you can see the North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival. Some of the grandest events take place on the coasts. In Los Angeles, visitors enjoy traditional foods and performances at the long-running Magical Chinese Lantern Festival.
At an American Chinese lantern festival, you can experience a blend of traditional elements with unique twists. At China Lights in New Orleans, visitors can walk through elaborate tunnels of lights. Here, they can also marvel at enormous, larger-than-life lantern sculptures. The festival also creates an unusual mix of Chinese and New Orleans traditions with foods like muffuletta egg rolls. In Selma, Texas, the Holiday Magic Festival of Lights combines a lantern festival with Christmas to get a truly unique hybrid. Here, visitors can hang out with Santa, explore Chinese lanterns, and stroll through Christmas lights. Later, fireworks light up the sky to close out the event.
To get the traditional Chinese lantern festival experience, you’d need to travel to China. In the United States, however, you can experience the beauty of Chinese lanterns. You can also see authentic performances and fun American twists. Each year, more cities are bringing Chinese lantern festivals to their parks and botanical gardens. It makes it easier to experience this beautiful cultural event.
Abby Drexler is a contributing writer and media specialist for Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc.