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The Story Behind Lantern Festival

Investigating the origins of Lantern Festival, the closing celebration of Chinese New Year

02·06·2012

We know, we know—you’ve had enough of the fireworks already. But buck up, friends! Today’s final hurrah, known as Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节, Lantern Festival), marks the last day of Spring Festival. Falling on the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar, the Yuanxiao Jie ends Spring Festival’s two-week celebrations with a bang (or a thousand), and falls on the evening of the year’s first full moon.

As we told you last year, festivities are relatively simple: hanging lanterns, solving riddles and fighting your neighbors for sweet glutinous rice balls, or yuanxiao (元宵), are all holiday staples. But where did the festival actually come from?

Like many holidays, Yuanxiao Jie’s origins have been largely obscured over the centuries, but there are several theories floating around as to how it developed. Here are our favorites:

  1. The “Making Offerings to Gods” Theory: One explanation says the holiday grew out of yearly offerings to Taiyi, the bigwig god responsible for controlling the fate of humanity. A similar story says that the festival is actually dedicated to the Taoist god Tianguan, whose birthday falls on that day, and who was also responsible for granting good fortune.
  2. The “Martyred Warrior” Theory: Yet another legend traces the holiday back to an ancient warrior named Lan Moon, who led a rebellion against a tyrannical king, and whose death was commemorated with festivities made in his name.
  3. The “Buddhist Symbolism” Theory: Some say the festival goes back to Emperor Mingdi, who ruled during the Eastern Han Dynasty, when Buddhism was still a marginal religion in China. After having a mysterious dream about a golden man, Mingdi sent a scholar to India to retrieve sacred Buddhist texts. When the scholar finally returned, Emperor Mingdi built a temple for the scriptures, and it became widely said that Buddhism had the power to “dispel darkness.” As a way of symbolizing this new truth, Emperor Mingdi had his subjects commemorate their newfound enlightenment by lighting lanterns.
  4. My Favorite Theory: While this is probably the least legit, it definitely makes for the best (if somewhat logically unsound) story. According to this legend, it all started with a young girl named Yuan Xiao who lived in the palace during the Han Dynasty. One day, an advisor to the emperor was wandering the grounds when he found Yuan Xiao crying, and preparing to kill herself by jumping into a well. When the advisor asked her what was the matter, she said she hadn’t been able to see her family since she started working at the palace, and would rather die than be separated from her parents. The advisor hatched a plan, and set up a fortune-telling stall out in the street. And for every person who came to him, he provided the same fortune: that a disastrous fire would consume the kingdom on the15th lunar day. Predictably, people started freaking out, and asked the advisor what they could do. He answered that two days before, the God of Fire would send a red fairy to burn down the city, and that people should ask her for mercy. On that day, Yuan Xiao dressed up as the fairy, and delivered a proclamation confirming the city’s impending doom. When the emperor turned to his advisor for help, the advisor said that every household should cook the God of Fire’s favorite food, tangyuan (汤圆, glutinous rice balls), as an offering. They should also hang red lanterns and set of firecrackers to make it seem as though the city were on fire. To the delight of everyone (except Yuan Xiao and the advisor), this combination of pandering and trickery worked, and the city escaped its doom-by-fire. In the end, Yuan Xiao’s parents came to the palace to check out the lanterns and were reunited with their daughter. The emperor then decreed that the day should be observed every year, and since Yuan Xiao had cooked the best tangyuan, said that the holiday should be named after her.

Yeah, I don’t believe it either. But it makes for a nice story to tell over your yuanxiao soup, don’t you think?

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