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February 17, 2011

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Hold high the lanterns

The Lantern Festival today means eating tangyuan (rice dumplings with sweet or meat fillings), parading in the neighborhood with rabbit-shaped lanterns, gazing at spectacular lantern displays and maybe solving lantern riddles.

This night, marked by the first full moon of the year, ends the 15-day Chinese Lunar New Year festival.

Though it's splendid today because of electric lighting and electric rabbits, it was much more colorful and fanciful in ancient times.

There were crowded lantern markets, dragon dances, lion dances, land boat dances, stilt-walking, Yangko dances, acrobats and all kinds of amusement when people poured into the streets and mingled.

The Lantern Festival is also called Yuanxiao Jie, the First Night (of the full moon) Festival.

The tradition is said to date back to the Han Dynasty (AD 206-220) more than 2,000 years ago when Emperor Hanwu established the day for a sacrificial ceremony to Taiyi, the God of Heaven. It was a day to pray for luck and prosperity in the new year. It gradually became a carnival for ordinary people.

"The Lantern Festival, to some extent, is more exuberant and cheerful than the Lunar New Year's Eve," says Tian Zhaoyuan, professor of anthropology and folk customs at East China Normal University. "Most people gather in their communities, in the streets and markets and celebrate with those both you know and don't know, while the New Year's Eve focuses more on family reunion."

The festival became increasingly important in ancient times. It lasted one day in the Han Dynasty, three days in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), five days in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and 10 days in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Religion contributed to the customs. Taoism holds it that Tian Guan or the Heavenly Official was born on shang yuan, the 15th day of the first lunar month. In the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), it was a routine to light lanterns to appreciate Buddhist relics and this custom developed into lantern appreciation that continues today.

"It was a day when people could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of carnival," says Tian. "All cheerful activities were encouraged on the days."

In addition, various regional customs added color to the festival, though many of them are unknown today.

For example, placing a poplar branch above the house doorway and placing a bowl of congee and chopsticks at the door step are said to treat the Door God and help protect the family in the new year.

In the north, most women - young and old - dressed up and walked around together during the festival. They had to cross every bridge they encountered because that was supposed to dispel all the "pathogenic" factors and protect their health.

Sending lanterns (deng) to families without children was a way of blessing them and wishing for children. The pronunciation of deng is similar to that of ding, which means family member, thus giving lanterns was seen to wish for new family members.

The Lantern Festival also provided a once-in-a-year opportunity for single young people to encounter possible sweethearts. In ancient China girls were not permitted to walk outside on the street, except on the Lantern Festival when groups of chaperoned girls could appreciate the lantern displays. So while "appreciating" lanterns, young men and women kept a sharp eye out for each other.

Today the increasing population density and lack of open space are among the reasons some customs have been lost, according to anthropologist Tian. But sociologist Gu Xiaoming of Fudan University thinks "it doesn't matter much whether particular traditions fade, as long as the festival itself is preserved."

"All the traditional customs we see today were creative activities in ancient times," says Gu. "We can always create new customs if old ones are lost. Isn't a high-tech laser rabbit lantern more appealing?"

The little-known legend

A number of legends say the Lantern Festival arose because the gods were angry and decided to burn the Earth. People tricked the gods by lighting lanterns and bonfires and setting off firecrackers so the immortals would think the land was already on fire.

One stories goes like this:

Once upon a time, humans were fighting monsters that attacked them and their livestock. A beautiful crane lost its way and was killed by accident.

The Supreme God was so enraged that he ordered the Heavenly Troop to set fire to the Earth on the 15th day of the first lunar month as punishment. A kind daughter of the Supreme God warned mortals in advance. So an old man urged every family to light lanterns, firecrackers and fireworks continuously from 14th to 16th day, giving the illusion that the world was ablaze and heavenly punishment was unnecessary.

The trick worked, the world was saved and people continued to mark the day every year with lanterns, fireworks and firecrackers.


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