The 15th day of the Chinese New Year is the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the celebration period. It has been celebrated for so long that it has several conflicting origin stories. One legend claims that Emperor Ming, who was a great proponent of Buddhism, ordered everyone to light lanterns on the 15th day of the 1st Lunar Month just as he’d seen the Buddhist Monks doing as they observed Uposatha (a day of reflection), while another attributes it to the Taoist deity Tianguan.
However it began, the Lantern Festival is still jubilantly celebrated today with beautiful lantern displays, from simple round lanterns to elaborate scenes and displays made of light. People used to enjoy releasing sky lanterns and making a wish, but the practice is becoming less popular now we know more about the environmental impact.
A popular activity on the 15th is guessing lantern riddles, pasted onto the outside of lanterns. Solving one is called ‘breaking’ a lantern riddle. People also enjoy watching lion and dragon dances, as well as preparing and eating Tangyuan, a dessert of glutinous rice flour balls boiled or fried with a tasty filling and served in a hot, syrupy broth. The round shape of the Tangyuan symbolises family togetherness, so they’re eaten in the hope of bringing the whole family good fortune in the coming year.
Chinese New Year celebrations in London are bold, bright and always well attended, with Chinatown remaining festooned with lanterns for some time after the celebration is over. The new addition to the festive calendar of the Magic Lantern Festival is unfortunately on hold due to the public health situation, but in the past few years the gardens of Chiswick House have played host to a whole array of illuminated installations for visitors to enjoy, as well as an entertainment area including street food trucks.
One of the more detailed legends about the origin of the Lantern Festival talks about an advisor to the emperor, Dongfang Shuo, coming across a weeping young girl on a walk. Yuan-Xiao was heartbroken that she had no time to see her family anymore due to her duties at the palace, and Dongfang Shuo promised to help. He opened a fortune-telling stall and began spreading the word of a coming fire on the 15th of the month.
When people asked what they could do to stop it, he told them they should beg the fairy sent by the God of Fire for mercy – the fairy played by Yuan-Xiao. She handed over a decree from the God of Fire that the city should be burnt, and Dongfang Shuo said that everyone should light lanterns and set off fireworks to trick him and make it appear the city was burning, and everyone should gather and view the decorations. He also told every household to prepare Tangyuan, as the God of Fire liked to eat it.
Yuan-Xiao cooked the best Tangyuan in the city and was joyfully reunited with her parents when they came to the palace to view the lanterns, and the Emperor decreed they should do the same thing every year. The festival was sometimes called Yuan-Xiao festival in reference to this story.