The Lantern Festival, or Yuan Xiao Festival, takes place on the first full moon of the lunar year – the 15th day of month 1. It marks the end of Chinese New Year and seems to have started during the Han Dynasty over 2,000 years ago. In the Tang Dynasty, it lasted 3 days. The first lunar month is Yuan-month and in ancient times night was called Xiao. It is not celebrated much in the USA. I started learning more about this because the date of Chinese New Year was so often just not convenient for teachers... and after a few years if you are in the same school, the children know alot about Chinese New Year and are ready for something new. For a real change of pace, check out the riddles elsewhere on this site.
It is a time to appreciate the full moon, the beautiful lanterns hung out, figuring out riddles hung from the lanterns, eat glutinous rice balls (called yuan xiao and tang yuan) and of course, be with family.
Legend of the Lantern Festival's Origin
There are a number of ancient legends about the origin: was it due to Taiyi, the God of heaven; Tianguan, the Taoist god responsible for good fortune; or an Emperor who wanted to promote Buddhism? (When it is called Shang Yuan it is the birthday of the god of heaven.)
Or, perhaps the Jade Emperor in Heaven was so angry at a village for killing his favorite goose, that he was going to destroy it with a storm of fire. However, when a good-hearted fairy heard of this planned vengeance, and the townspeople were warned to light lanterns throughout the town on that day. They did as they were told, so from the Heavens, the village seemed to already be ablaze. The Jade Emperor was thus satisfied that his goose had already been avenged and he decided not to destroy the town. From then on, people have celebrated the anniversary by carrying lanterns of different shapes and colors through the streets on the first full moon of the year. It is also a spectacular backdrop for other festivities, including dragon and lion dances, and fireworks.
Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan
Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan are small dumpling balls of glutinous rice, sometimes rolled around a filling which can be sweet or salty, perhaps sesame, peanuts, vegetable, rose petals, or meat. Tang Yuan are often cooked in red-bean or other kinds of soup. The custom of eating Yuanxiao probably comes from the fourth century, during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. It then became popular during the Tang and Song periods.
The round shape symbolizes wholeness and unity.
Find a recipe for yuan xiao at:
About.com's Chiense Culture pages
Other references you may find useful include:
Pages no longer available from an American elementary school in Beijing: