The Lantern Festival, also known as Yuanxiao Festival or Shangyuan Festival, is a traditional holiday with great significance that marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations. It always falls on the 15th of the first lunar month, and will fall on Friday, March 2 this year.
As to the origin of Lantern Festival, there are different stories, most of which can be dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) period.
The most widely-accepted is that, during early Han Dynasty, a time when Buddhism started gaining more influence in China, Buddhist monks would light lanterns to worship Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The then reigning Ming Emperor learned of this and demanded that all citizens follow suit and light lanterns since he was eager to promote Buddhism throughout the country.
The festival was henceforth celebrated around the country and devolved into various traditions and folk customs, including lighting lanterns, solving lantern riddles, worshiping deceased relatives, and lion or dragon dancing. It’s also a time for a reunion with family to appreciate the bright full moon and eat Tangyuan (round rice dumpling with sweet fillings) as well as enjoy other festive activities.
Lighting and watching lanterns in different colors, sizes and shapes is probably the main activity on that day. Many of the lanterns are shaped into traditional Chinese images and symbols such as animals, because in Chinese culture a specific animal may stand for something fortuitous. For example, a fish stands for abundance, and horses represent energy.
Also, the Chinese character for lantern is 灯 (Dēng) contains 火 (Huǒ, fire), and 丁 (Dīng, people), therefore many believe that lighting multiple lanterns will bring families a bright future and more children. Families living in ancient times would often light many lanterns for this purpose.
Another outstanding tradition is the lion dance. Ancient people regarded the lion as a symbol of bravery and strength. Therefore, lion dances are performed at important festive occasions to ward off evil and pray for good fortune and safety.
Tangyuan, round dumplings made of glutinous rice flour and sweet fillings such as sesame seeds, peanuts, bean paste, is a must-have food for Lantern Festival.
As tangyuan is pronounced similarly to 团圆 (Tuányuán) which means reunion and closeness. The whole family gathers together on that day to eat tangyuan as a way to express their best wishes for a year of happiness for their family.
Below are two of the lantern fairs in Beijing that attract a large number of visitors every year.
OCT&Zigong Lantern Festival (until March 12)
Location: Happy Valley (Xiaowuji Beilu, Chaoyang District)
Buying tickets: http://bj.happyvalley.cn/
Longqingshan Ice Lantern Fair (until early March)
Location: Longqingshan Scenic Spot (Gucheng village, Yanqing County)
Tickets: on the gate (RMB 40 per person)