Today the celebrations of Chinese New Year comes to an end with the Yuanxiao or Lantern Festival. Candles are lit outside homes to guide wayward spirits on their way, people will parade through the streets lighting their way with elaborate lanterns and in many places the skies will be filled with glowing lights as lanterns are released and become airborne. The lanterns can be simple red balls of paper and bamboo or elaborate representations of animals, dragons or mythical celestial beasts. And there are further flashes of light from the fireworks exploding both in the air and on the ground.
There are many legends behind the origins of Yuanxiao but most seem to involve a trick that was played on the Jade Emperor. Like many gods the Jade Emperor was often quick to anger and as quick to forgive. Depending on the teller it was either an Imperial court or an entire town that incurred his wrath – for what reason we’re not really sure – and he ordered Zhurong, the God of Fire to destroy the place on the first full moon of the New Year. Someone – a wise monk or a virginal Palace serving girl, take your pick – found out about this and suggested a scheme to save the court/town. Everyone was ordered to light as many red lanterns as possible, place them about their homes and in their gardens, parade through the streets with them and set them adrift in the skies. Bonfires were to be lit and firecrackers thrown into them to create noise and smoke and the people were to be vocal in their appreciation of the spectacle.
As he approached earth Zhurong saw that his target was already ablaze with flickering flames, and heard the cries of the people and the explosions and returned to the Jade Emperor to report that the task has been accomplished. Satisfied that his orders had been carried out the Jade Emperor turned to other matters, obviously ignoring the still intact court/town and its populace the next morning when the smoke cleared.
Over the centuries the Festival has come to have many traditions attached to it. The releasing of the lanterns symbolizes the letting go of the old and taking on the new – much like our New Year’s resolutions. Riddles are written on the lanterns and answering them will bring luck in the New Year and often an extra tangyuan from the owner of the lantern. It was said that Zhurong‘s favourite food was Tangyuan – a sweet made of glutinous rice encasing a filling of red bean or sesame paste – and these are served in his honour on the Feast day.
In some places it is also a considered a “romantic” day on which true love can be searched for and found. Single ladies write their names on mandarin oranges and throw them into a river or a lake while single men collect them and eat the oranges. The taste is considered a good indication of their possible love: sweet represents a good future while sour represents a bad relationship. As the word for lantern and “new born” is the same in several dialects it is also thought that the festival is a propitious time to conceive and women will walk under the lanterns praying for a child.
However on Yuanxiao most people pray that they will have smooth futures and express their best wishes and love for their families. Not a bad prayer or wish for any of us.