A Lantern Festival Is the Final Celebration of the Lunar New Year—Here’s What It Represents

"Michelle, do you want me to send you some bunny lanterns? Yes, I will send you half a dozen, and you can use them or give them to your friends."

I can’t help but giggle as I read my mom’s last text message to me. I’m a capable, independent adult in my thirties, and she’s concerned I’m not able to procure the necessities to celebrate the upcoming Lantern Festival, honoring the Year of the Rabbit. The Lantern Festival falls on the final day of 15-day Lunar New Year celebration—this year, on February 5.

A number of countries celebrate the Lunar New Year (which is why it is incorrect to call it the "Chinese New Year"), and have their own versions of it. Many Chinese families (including mine) associate the Lunar New Year with eating. Food plays an important role in the celebrations, with many ingredients being consumed because they're thought to bring good luck, good fortune, and good health. Ingredients like oranges and pineapple must be eaten because they symbolize prosperity and growth in the year ahead. Dishes like steamed fish, dumplings and also hot pot are also part of the New Year spread because they represent plentiness, wealth, and also unity, respectively, which are all eaten during the big family New Year’s Eve feast. In addition to food, the Lunar New Year focuses on on familial togetherness and cleaning the house to energetically prepare for a new year.

Lunar New Year traditions and activities take place throughout the entire 15-day celebration period. The final day of the celebrations culminates with the Lantern Festival, which includes a festive meal and activities, like lighting wishing lanterns to invite success for the year ahead. Below, learn about the Lantern Festival's significance plus how to participate.

What the Lantern Festival represents

The Lantern Festival is also called YuanXiao Jie (元宵節), which loosely translates to “first night,” denoting it being the last day of the New Year celebrations and first night for a full moon in the Lunar New Year. (Indeed, on February 5, the full moon in Leo takes the sky.) In places and cultures where Lantern Festivals are common, like China and Taiwan, they're associated with sweet meanings for happiness, reconciliation and togetherness.

Lantern Festivals are associated with sweet meanings for happiness, reconciliation and togetherness.

The Lantern Festival is also the biggest celebration of the whole Lunar New Year period. Families spend the day before prepping for the event, making both paper lanterns and food, including tang yuan (湯圓), which are sticky, spherical sweets made with rice and sometimes filled with a sweet red bean paste or sweetened peanuts.

After a celebratory meal, the Lantern Festival is traditionally spent with a visit to a temple to pray for a safe year. The lantern symbolizes new beginnings, happiness, and hope. Physically, the round shape of the lantern represents unity, whereas the action of letting the lantern go into the night sky represents hope. Families are also encouraged to write their dreams and ambitions on the lantern, which is thought to be sent to the heavens when it is lit and let go. It then arrives to the Gods to be granted.

Celebrating the Lantern Festival

Traditionally, the Lantern Festival is celebrated within the neighborhood, with family and neighbors. Everyone gathers outside their home and lights their lanterns for fun to carry on the tradition. Many modern Lantern Festivals are more so full-blown public events including concerts, fireworks, and elaborate lantern shows. There's nothing culturally insensitive about attending these events, so long as they are created in accordance with the tradition and that folks who attend educate themselves on the foundational significance of what a Lantern Festival represents. That said, some folks certainly still opt for the simplicity of a small gathering rather than dealing with large crowds.

For some examples of larger Lantern Festivals happening in the United States—a melting pot for many Asian diasporas—just look to a number of major cities, like Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston, to name just a few.

Even if put on through a lens of cultural appreciation, a number of the modern local events stray from the more traditional-leaning simple Lantern Festivals I grew up attending. But while these bigger celebrations may go beyond making paper lanterns, discussing the year ahead with family members, and eating treats to mark the end of another big year of celebrations, "different" isn't necessarily devoid of meaning, either.

These modern Lantern festivals serve as a reminder that Asian culture is carrying on into generations to come, that Asian people are celebrating the Lunar New Year outside of Asia, and that folks of different backgrounds learning about our culture and history. I appreciate that people who are not Asian are enjoying our traditions. I also enjoy that they may be enriching their lives with the belief that the Lantern Festival is a special time to remember and appreciate family, as well as dream for positive things ahead.

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