Happy Lantern Festival
Fireworks! The Chinese New Year certainly comes in with some big bangs and more than a few snap, crackle and pops. But it’s the Chinese Lantern Festival that marks the last day of traditional Chinese New Year celebrations. Its bright lanterns symbolize the letting go of past selves and the acquisition of new ones in the coming year, and they are usually bright, exuberant red for good fortune and good measure. This ancient festival falls on the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunisolar Chinese calendar. In 2017 that means February 11 on the Gregorian Calendar.
Known as early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD), the Lantern Festival quickly became a celebration with great cultural significance. Emperor Wudi already attached special importance to the celebration and in 104 BC decreed that it should last through the whole night. There are a number of theories about how the festival came to be. The most likely
As time passed festivities became ever more elaborate. By the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) the lantern display would last for three days. Curfews were lifted so that even the depressed common people might celebrate day and night. Poets composed poems that extolled the revelry. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the festival extended for five days. Lanterns might be made of colorful glass, or even precious jade, and painted with figures from folk tales. The common folk probably kept to the traditional paper. Lantern Festival celebrations reportedly reached their peak by the early part of the fifteenth century during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by which time festivities went on for ten days. The Emperor Chengzu (b. 1360; reigned 1402-1424) had all of downtown Beijing decorated with lanterns.
Coincidentally for the date, the Lantern Festival had an odd bit of Valentine’s Day to it as well. Marriageable young people would be chaperoned around the streets in the hope of finding true love and matchmakers were kept busy pairing possible couples. The bright lanterns symbolized their dreams and expectations. Young ladies might also write their names and other pertinent contact info on mandarin oranges and expectantly toss them into the stream in the hopes that they’d be plucked out by the right guy. Prototexting via citrus fruit, it seems. These amorous traditions have faded away in parts of modern China but the Lantern Festival is still celebrated as a kind of Valentine's Day by the Chinese of Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Oh, and finally, one of the two common names for the fuchsia in Chinese is 吊 灯 花 (Diàodēnghuā). The hanging lantern flower. So Happy Lantern Festival everyone. Hang those hanging lanterns high today. May your new selves be happy, healthy and prosperous. And fulfilled with fuchsias
(Illustrations: Ming-dynasty Emperor Xianzong enjoying festivities with families in the Forbidden City during the Lantern Festival with acrobatics, operas, magic shows and firecrackers in 1485.)