Read about five ways to enjoy the holiday and see if you can solve our three traditional Lantern Day riddles. Can you meet the challenge?

The Chinese Lantern Festival tastes as good as the Mid-autumn Festival, entertains as much as the Dragon Boat Festival, and feels as romantic as Valentine’s Day. The Lantern Festival Yuánxiāo jié 元宵节 (lit. first month’s night’s festival) falls on the 15th day of the lunar new year, on the night of the first full moon. This date marks the close of the Chinese New Year celebrations and signifies the approaching end of winter, when traditionally in the colder climates, one might again venture out at night aided by the light of a simple lantern.

The origins of the festival date back roughly two thousand years (and let’s face it, which Chinese tradition doesn’t?) to the Western Han era (206BC-25AD) when the prolific Wu Di emperor is said to have popularized the Lantern Festival during his 54 year reign. For him, this holiday was one of the biggest events of the year, worthy of an all night party.

A popular myth about Lantern Day involves the legendary Jade Emperor, one of the Three Pure Ones, the highest deities in the Taoist pantheon. One day villagers killed his favorite crane, without knowing its divine ownership. Like the angry God of the Old Testament who often vented anger on commoners for their transgressions, the Jade Emperor decided to destroy the village on the 15th day of the new year. His sympathetic daughter, however, told the villagers of their impending doom and sent everyone into a panic.

Fortunately, a wise man from a nearby village arrived with a plan to fool the Jade Emperor’s army. The villagers lit lanterns, set off firecrackers and burned bonfires to give the appearance the city was already on fire. The Jade Emperor returned to his important celestial activities and the village lived happily ever after.

But enough legend…here are five Lantern Day traditions still active here in the 21st century that you might enjoy:

1. Eat glutinous rice balls

If you can’t find them where you live, why not make your own? Here’s a quick recipe:

  • mix glutinous rice flour with water and knead it into a dough
  • pinch a small piece and roll it into a small ball (if you’ve got any experience with Play-Doh, you can’t get it wrong).
  • boil water, then drop in the balls
  • bring the water to a boil again, checking if all the balls float to the surface, then reduce heat for a few more minutes
  • scoop them out and enjoy!

If you want to take it up a notch, go for your favorite filling either salty (meat or vegetable, mixed with salt or spices to taste) or sweet (sesame to peanut or even jujube, powdered and mixed with lots of sugar and oil).

Similar to Mid-autumn mooncakes, this festival’s rice balls symbolize roundness and therefore togetherness. The ball-shaped dumpling (tāngyuán 汤圆 lit. soup rounds) fulfills the same dual role – a tasty food carrying goodwill.

2. Walk a lantern

Lanterns come in many shapes and sizes. The most popular mimic rabbits, geese, flowers, lotuses and geometric shapes.

You can make one yourself too. First you need the frame, a bamboo strip or metal wire twisted, stacked up, bundled, tied, sculptured (imagine Lego only much harder) into your desired shape leaving a hollow inside for a bulb or candle. The skin is made of paper, traditionally red, wrapped around the bone as much as you can. It’s okay to leave cracks and holes in the skin, because the candle needs air and you want to let out some of the light.

Now comes the fun part, taking the lantern for a walk at night with your friends! Depending on how big your lantern is, you may need wheels at the bottom to roll it along, or much simpler, a stick from which to hang it.

3. Solve a friend’s riddle

This practice dates back to the Tang era, with wishes for prosperity and good fortune for those you encounter. The modern version challenges friends to solve your riddles, usually written on paper strips and displayed alongside the lanterns, but they don’t have to be lantern festival themed.

Here are three typical word games (answers at bottom of post) which you might encounter while admiring the lanterns of others:

Strangely it doesn’t ride a horse, it only rides your nose. (hint: object)
Nǐ shuō xīqí bù xīqí, tā ná bízi dāng mǎ qí. (cāi yī wùpǐn)

It looks green, but red inside. Tastes sweet and spits black. (hint: fruit)
Wàiyī lǜyóuyóu, nèixīn hóngtōngtóng. Chī lái tiánsīsī, tǔchū hēi hū hū. (cāi yī shuǐguǒ)

You hit me, but end up hitting yourself. You bruise and I bleed. (hint: insect)
你为我打你,打得你皮开, 打得我溅血。(猜一昆虫)
Nǐ wèi wǒ dǎ nǐ, dǎ dé nǐ pí kāi, dǎ dé wǒ jiàn xuè. (cāi yī kūnchóng)

In a party setting, when you think you have the right answer, you strip off the riddle, go to the answer desk, and if you get it right, trade your answer for a reward. This activity could be a highlight for a kids’ lantern night.

4. Watch a lion dance or other show

There are several enjoyable shows to watch. The most common are:

  • Lion dance show – typically two acrobats, one plays the head, the other the body, performing to drums and other musical accompaniment.
  • Land boat show – people hold cardboard boats and walk in a wobbly style as if riding a boat.
  • High stilt show – this one needs more training and is best attempted when not totally intoxicated.

All forms of entertainment serve to put crowds into a happy mood on the last day of CNY holiday. And who doesn’t enjoy paraders in costumes with props making goofy moves?

5. Be openly romantic

In ancient times, women did not often leave the home to interact with anybody outside the family, much less at night. The Lantern Festival was an ideal opportunity for women break the taboo and slip away with an excuse (“I can’t miss the lantern show!”) and perhaps meet up with secret loves.

Now the Lantern Festival provides extra motivation to initiate or accept a date. Along with the Chinese Valentines Day (Qi Xi Festival), this holiday is an ideal opportunity to show your romantic side.

Would you like to share any stories or tell us what you have planned for the Lantern Day evening? Remember, after this day, the party’s over and it’s back to business as usual.

riddle answers:

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