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Having just returned to Beijing last night after a month in Thailand and Laos, I made it back just in time for the final day of Spring Festival revelry – the Lantern Festival (元宵节 – yuán xiāo jié). As I type this post, a constant stream of fireworks and firecrackers are being set off right oustide of my window in the courtyard of our apartment complex. It is now about 8 p.m., and they have been going on since about 10 this morning. So what else do people do for this final day of celebrations aside from disposing off their excess fireworks?
While the English name explains some of the traditions of the holiday, the Chinese name gives you some of its history. In China, the first month of the New Year is known as 元, and in ancient times 宵 was the word used for night. As this is the first night of the year that a full moon (满月 – mǎn yuè) can be seen, we can see where this day got its name. For this special occasion, people will send thousands of colorful lanterns up into the heavens, illuminating the night sky. Children will try to solve a lantern riddle (猜灯谜 – cāi dēng mí) that is printed on the side before they send their lantern away. Many years ago, lanterns were only for the Emperor and nobility, but today they can be enjoyed by everyone.
There are many legends about the origins of this holiday, which has been a part of Chinese culture ever since the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 221 AD). It is said that the holiday evolved from an ancient Chinese belief that celestial spirits could be seen flying about in the light of the first full moon of the lunar calendar. To aid them in their search for the spirits they used torches. These torches gave way to lanterns of every shape, size and color.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40m95jO58Fc
A short video about a Lantern Festival celebration in the city of Nanjing.
Of course, as is the case with any celebration in China, there is something special to eat on this day – gluttinous rice balls, called either 元宵 after the holiday or the more traditional name 汤圆 (tāng yuán). These are basically dumplings made of rice flour, and the filling will be either sweet or salty, depending on the region. According to this writeup of the holiday, the special treat may be filled with “rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil.”
I should note that as I’ve been writing this, the firework party outside has only gotten bigger and louder, despite the fact that a tree already went up in flames. Maybe it’s a good thing the Spring Festival shenanigans are just about finished!