The Lantern Festival has been part of Chinese New Year celebrations 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, people used torches. These torches gave way to lanterns of every shape, size and color.
Despite the fact that most Chinese dynasties had curfews during the night, all the people were allowed to stay out on the days around the Lantern Festival. The Chinese women, who had to stay indoors for most of their lives, were permitted to admire the lanterns and the full moon on the day as well.
Therefore, it was almost the only time for young men and women to meet with each other and fall in love, according to experts.
The other evidence of the Lantern Festival being Chinese Valentine’s Day is recorded in Chinese literature. In the thousands of ancient poems passed on from the Tang and Song dynasties, many depicted ardent love for their partners.
The Lantern Festival Night - to the tune of Green Jade Table
by Xin Qiji 许渊冲、许明译
One night's east wind adorns a thousand trees with flowers
And blows down stars in showers.
Fine steeds and carved cabs spread fragrance en route;
Music vibrates from the flute;
The moon sheds its full light
While fish and dragon lanterns dance all night.
In gold-thread dress, with moth or willow ornaments,
Giggling, she melts into the throng with trails of scents
But in the crowd once and again
I look for her in vain.
When all at once I turn my head,
I find her there where lantern light is dimly shed.
Part of the lantern festival tradition involves a game to guess riddles attached to the lanterns. In the old days the riddles were literary allusions to the Chinese classics and so were mainly the preserve of the educated classes.
Why is the letter E so important?
What clothing is always sad?
What is higher without a head than with a head?
What stays hot even if put in a refrigerator?
Like most Chinese festivals, the Lantern Festival has its own special food, called "yuanxiao" or "tangyuan". These are round, glutinous rice dumplings with sweet or saly fillings. The dumplings are said to symbolize both the first full moon and family unity and completeness.
Stilt-walking, drumming and dragon and lion dancing are all traditional forms of festival entertainment. In Asia, it is not uncommon to see processions of hundred-foot long dragons, lit with flashing eyes and luminous bodies, accompanied by pounding drums, cymbals and brass instruments.
Today, the connotation of love in the festival has been almost lost, as young couples could date whenever they want and women are no longer confined indoors. But the lantern shows remain the focus of the festival.
Because it is the beginning of everything.