The Lantern Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month in the lunisolar calendar and traditionally marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Also known as Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵节, First Night Festival in English), the Lantern Festival is considered one of the most spectacular events in China’s cultural calendar. This year it’s taking place on 26 February.
Historically lanterns were used by the army as signalling devices, however, they were also embedded in Chinese folklore. The first legend is about a villager who accidentally killed a sacred crane. This made one of the mythological emperors, Tiandi (天帝), furious and he pledged to exact vengeance by burning down the village on the 15th day of the first lunar month. However, his daughter took pity on the villagers and warned them about the plan. As a result, they decided to raise hundreds of red lanterns outside their houses to create the image of a huge fire, tricking the emperor.
Another legend is the story of a maiden who served in the emperor’s palace without being granted the chance to see her family. She was desperate and tried to commit suicide, but was stopped by the emperor’s adviser who promised to bring her parents into the town. On the next day, the man left the palace disguised as a fortune-teller. He told everyone that the emissary of the God of Fire would descend from heaven and burn the city down on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The man also spread rumours that the emissary loved rice balls. The rumours reached the emperor so he ordered every citizen to cook rice balls and raise red lanterns so that the city would look like it was on fire. The maiden’s parents were among those who visited the palace to give rice balls to the fictional emissary. The maiden noticed her parents in the crowd and the family reunion was complete.
On this day, people in China usually eat rice balls, also known as yuan xiao. People believe that sweet glutinous rice balls will bring good fortune and ensure a safe year. The dish also has a symbolic meaning for Chinese families. Another Chinese name for the rice ball – tangyuan (汤圆) – has a similar pronunciation to the word tuanyuan (团圆), which means “reunite.” The tradition of eating rice balls hence symbolises family reunion.