Explainer: Everything You Need to Know About Lantern Festival

By Catherine Lee, February 23, 2024

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The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.

So what’s this festival that falls right after Chinese New Year when everyone has already gone back to work? 

Lantern Festival is a traditional celebration that takes place each year on the 15th day of the first month of the Lunar calendar, during the full moon. This year it takes place on Saturday, February 24.

Although Lantern Festival isn’t an official public holiday, it’s been around for over 2,000 years.

Activities include lighting fireworks and carrying, releasing and watching lanterns – which can symbolize the people letting go of their past selves – while the full moon is present.

Lanterns are most often red to symbolize good fortune.

Image via SimonQ錫濛譙/Flickr

This special day is called ‘Yuan Xiao Jie’ (元宵节) due to a popular custom where families get together to eat rice balls.

These sweet snacks come loaded with different types of fillings – sesame, jujube paste and dried fruit, just to name a few – and are known as 'yuan xiao' or 'tang yuan.'

Image via @miaomiaoleileilei/Instagram

Other than the sight of magnificently illuminated lanterns and the launching of fireworks, this day is celebrated through a variety of other activities.

One such custom is the riddle guessing game, a tradition that has been around since the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD).

Sheets with riddles are hung from the lanterns, and people are expected to guess the answers. If guessed correctly, you can receive a prize.

Image via 凌智 (Suzuki)/Flickr

Lion dances are another custom common to Lantern Festival, and are believed to have been first introduced during the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD).

In Northern China, skill is the main focus for the dances, whereas in South China, dancing to closely resemble the movements of a lion is the key element.

In addition to the lion dances, performers will also get up on stilts to try out difficult stunts. 

This article was originally published on February 10, 2017. It has been updated and republished on February 23, 2024.

[Cover image via Pexels]

For more of The Explainer, click here.

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