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Celebrating the Magical Chinese Lantern Festival

The Chinese Lantern Festival celebration is one of China’s most exciting and traditional holidays, and it’s certainly an experience you don’t want to miss out on! Often labeled “Chinese Valentine’s Day,” the Lantern Festival is a time of getting together with family and loved ones and enjoying the beautiful lantern displays.

In this article, you’ll learn all about this almost magical Chinese Lantern Festival, from its traditional meaning to modern-day celebrations.

Are you ready? Let’s get started!

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1. What is the Lantern Festival?

It’s said that in ancient times, the Lantern Festival, or 元宵节 (Yuánxiāo Jié), played a similar role to Valentine’s Day. This is because, in ancient times, young girls in China were usually not allowed to go outdoors, but the Lantern Festival was an exception. It was a great opportunity for single young people to meet each other, and it wasn’t uncommon for lovers to reunite with each other.

While this romantic connotation has lessened over time, the Lantern Festival is still a major holiday in China and is lots of fun for everyone involved!

2. Chinese Lantern Festival Dates

Red Paper Lanterns for Chinese Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival is celebrated each year on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar, or 正月十五 (Zhēngyuè Shíwǔ) in Chinese. For your convenience, here’s a list of this holiday’s date on the Gregorian calendar for the next ten years.

  • 2020: February 8
  • 2021: February 26
  • 2022: February 15
  • 2023: February 5
  • 2024: February 24
  • 2025: February 12
  • 2026: March 3
  • 2027: February 20
  • 2028: February 9
  • 2029: February 27

3. Most Common Chinese Lantern Festival Traditions

There’s an old saying that “food is the paramount necessity of the people.” During the Chinese Lantern Festival, food is a huge deal. When we talk about the Lantern Festival, we can’t forget to mention the tradition of eating 汤圆 (tāngyuán), or Yuanxiao (which, as you may recall, is also eaten during the Winter Solstice).

Yuanxiao is a type of dessert made of glutinous rice with or without filling. Some common fillings include black sesame, bean paste, sugar, and hawthorn. There are various ways to make Yuanxiao, including boiling, sautéing, deep-frying, and steaming.

Glutinous rice balls are called Yuanxiao in the North, while in the South, they’re called Tangyuan. There are slight differences in making Yuanxiao and Tangyuan.

In Beijing, Yuanxiao is best characterized by its filling. People first prepare the dough with the filling and then put it in a machine. The machine gradually shapes the dough into a ball, and it’s a little bit like making a snowball. However, in the South, making Tangyuan is quite similar to making dumplings; they’re both molded and shaped by hand. Making good Tangyuan requires glutinous rice flour that is of high quality because it’s not easy to keep them fresh.

Besides eating, of course, there’s also playing. Popular traditional activities for the Lantern Festival include going to the fair, lighting lanterns, and guessing riddles. The fair is an open market held near a temple or in a park. You can taste traditional snacks from different areas of China and enjoy various folk performances.

As its name suggests, lighting lanterns involves lighting and hanging various types of beautiful lanterns. Guessing riddles also originated from lighting lanterns. People write riddles on the lanterns, and visitors can guess the answer when they pass by. At the fair, the first person who successfully solves the riddle may receive a prize.

During this holiday, you can not only eat delicious Yuanxiao, but you can also enjoy the traditional Chinese Lantern Festival lion dances, called 舞狮 (wǔshī). Dancers hide themselves in a lion costume, then roll up and down and move left and right to imitate a lion, which is very interesting to see. There are also Chinese Lantern Festival dragon dances, though the lion dances tend to be more popular.

4. Chinese Love Stories

Chinese Man Hanging Lantern with Grandson

How many people through the ages have looked toward the sky at night, hungering for love, and imagining their own future? And how many writers through the ages have wanted to express the genuine feelings of being human?

Some people say that Chinese people aren’t very romantic by nature. However, some of the most beautiful love stories come from Chinese culture and folklore.

Two of the most popular Chinese love stories are those of the Butterfly Lovers and of the Cowherd and the Weaver. Why not read up on these yourself?

5. Must-Know Vocabulary for the Chinese Lantern Festival

Chinese Dragon Dance Being Performed

Are you ready to review some of the Chinese vocabulary words and phrases we saw in this article? Here’s a list of the most essential vocabulary for this holiday!

  • 舞狮 (wǔshī) — lion dance
  • 灯笼 (dēnglong) — paper lantern
  • 舞龙 (wǔlóng) — dragon dance
  • 花灯 (huādēng) — colorful lantern
  • 月圆之夜 (yuèyuán zhī yè) — full moon night
  • 汤圆 (tāngyuán) — glutinous rice ball
  • 挂灯笼 (guà dēnglong) — hang lantern
  • 元宵灯会 (yuánxiāo dēnghuì) — Lunar New Year Lantern Carnival
  • 猜灯谜 (cāi dēngmí) — solve riddles that are written on lanterns
  • 正月十五 (Zhēngyuè Shíwǔ) — the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar
  • 元宵节 (Yuánxiāo Jié) — Lantern Festival

To hear the pronunciation of each vocabulary word, and to read them alongside relevant images, be sure to check out our Chinese Lantern Festival vocabulary list!

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the Lantern Festival is an essential component of Chinese culture, and it provides flavorful insight into the history of her people. We hope that you learned some new Chinese Lantern Festival facts with us, and gained valuable insight along the way.

Do you want to have a Chinese Lantern Festival experience for yourself? Is there a Valentine’s Day celebration in your own country? Let us know in the comments!

If you’re interested in learning more about Chinese holidays, you may find the following pages useful:

And for more information on Chinese culture in general, check out these pages:

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