So for me, being in Taiwan on Asia time, yesterday was actually the Lantern Festival. But for many of you, depending on where you are, it’s still Lantern Festival, so Happy Lantern Festival! And for whom it’s already passed, Happy Belated Lantern Festival!
This year in Taiwan, the lantern festivals are held in Taichung, which is where I’m currently located. I still have yet to get my butt to an actual festival, but I’ve seen some decorations and passed by a festival on my way back from Kaohsiung, and it’s definitely on my to-do list before March 15, which is when they end.
So what exactly is lantern festival besides a massive gathering of people looking at pretty lanterns? The lantern festival falls on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, which is the first full moon of the new year. This day also marks the last day of Lunar New Year celebrations. Tāng yuán, which is a glutinous ball made out of rice flour (kind of like mochi), is traditionally eaten on this day. They are cooked in boiling water and then added to either a sweet soup or a savory one. But why the lanterns?
There are many legends about the origins of this holiday. Some say that it’s the celebration of the end of winter and its darkness or that it’s a celebration to please the gods of health and good fortune so that they bestow these gifts upon the people. My two favorite ones, which are the ones told to me as a child, revolve around a crane and a young maiden, and explain the lanterns.
1. The crane
One day a crane flew down from heaven and landed in a little village. The villagers, seeing how beautiful the crane was, decided to hunt it and eventually killed it. This greatly angered the Jade Emperor in heaven because the crane was his favorite bird. In fact, he was so angry that he decided to set the entire village ablaze in an act of revenge on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year. His daughter warned its inhabitants of her father’s plan. The inhabitants of the village feared their imminent doom until a wise man from a neighboring village suggested that they hang up red lanterns all through the village and set off firecrackers so as to trick the Jade Emperor into thinking that the village had already been set on fire. When the 15th day arrived, the Jade Emperor sent his troops down to burn the village, but upon seeing the village “ablaze,” his troops returned and reported this to the Emperor. The Emperor, satisfied, decided to no longer burn the village. From that day forward, every year on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, villagers lit red lanterns and set off fireworks to celebrate.
2. Yuán Xiāo, the young maiden
Once upon a time, there lived a young maiden named Yuán Xiāo who worked in the palace. One day, she was so homesick that she started to contemplate suicide. She thought, if she couldn’t be with her family, then she would rather not live. The king’s adviser, seeing the young maiden so stricken with grief, devised a clever plan to reunite her with her family. The adviser set up a fortune telling stand and told everyone the same fortune – that the God of Fire would burn down the city on the 15th day of the New Year. To avoid the fire, the adviser advised the emperor to cook tāng yuán, which was what the God of Fire’s red fairy liked to eat, and also to light red lanterns and set off fireworks. In addition, the adviser also advised the emperor to tell the villagers to light red lanterns and come to the palace to admire the lantern decorations and fireworks. The young maiden was reunited with her family when they came to the palace to admire the lights. And because she made the best tāng yuán, the festival was named after her (in Mandarin, lantern festival is yuán xiāo festival).
I can’t wait to get to a lantern festival to see all the unique and often times elaborate lantern structures and eat more tāng yuán! I’m really hoping that I’ll be able to make my own lantern, like I did as a kid at one of these festivals.