What is the Lantern Festival?

Photo of a woman letting go of a lantern

On Tuesday 15th February, many people in East Asia will be finishing a two-week period of Chinese New Year celebrations with the Lantern Festival (also known as the Yuan Xiao Festival).

The specific date coincides with the first full moon of the lunar new year and is seen as a time to ‘let go’. Each year on this date, it’s tradition to take down the Chinese New Year decorations, putting the previous year in the past and providing a clean space to look forward to a prosperous new year. Like most festivals around the world, the Lantern Festival is marked by several key traditions.

Lighting Lanterns

As the name suggests, lighting lanterns is the notable activity of the festival! The message behind the act is to illuminate the future, with lanterns (many of which are red, to invoke good fortune) put up in the home and in public places.

Countless variations of lanterns have been created throughout history, including from materials such as paper, jade, silk, glass and bamboo; of various sizes, such as small palm-sized versions to giant depictions of animals and the natural world; and groups of lanterns arranged together to depict famous cultural and mythological scenes. While the famous sky lanterns (as seen in the image above) have been popular in the past, they have now been marked as a fire hazard and are banned in many places around the world.

Lantern Riddles

Back in the Song Dynasty (960-1276), scholars would write riddles on small pieces of paper and hang them from lanterns for others to solve. The answers were not always obvious and could have several interpretations, so imperial advisors often used the riddles to make anonymous suggestions to the emperor.

The tradition of writing riddles on lanterns is still in place today – although the act is for entertainment rather than political advisory! Have a go at resolving some lantern riddles.

Eating tāng yuan

Most Chinese festivals are associated with a particular type of food (such as mooncakes, during the Mid Autumn Festival) and the Lantern Festival is no different. Also called yuan xiao in the north, tāng yuan are balls of glutinous rice flour that often contain sweet fillings and are served in a thin, hot soup. While they are traditionally white in colour, bright pink, purple and orange variations have emerged in recent years.

The name ‘tāng yuan’ is pronounced similarly to ‘tuán yuan’, which means ‘reunion’ or ‘completeness’. The round balls physically symbolise this ‘wholeness’.


In Ancient China, it was custom that women were mostly expected to stay indoors at all times – and due to strict curfews that were designed to keep citizens inside after dark, most people had limitations on their freedom.

However, the Lantern Festival was seen as an occasion during which all people (including women) were allowed to leave the home to observe the lanterns, presenting an opportunity to meet others and socialise – inevitably leading to romance in some circumstances!

Although the August Qixi Festival is officially marked as Valentine’s Day in China, the Lantern Festival’s ancient associations with love puts it as a strong contender for one of the most romantic events in the Chinese calendar.

Key symbols of Chinese New Year

Traditional Chinese New Year Food

The Year of the Tiger