The Lunar New Year holiday reaches its climax with Yuan Xiao (元宵节—yuán xiāo jié), or the Lantern Festival. Our middle grades Chinese classes wrapped up our Lunar New Year festivities by celebrating this holiday. The New Year is a time reserved for families—there is the reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, visits (拜年—bài nián) to in-laws on the second day and neighbors after that. Stores reopen on the fifth day and society goes back to normal. But during the Lantern Festival, everyone—regardless of age or gender—goes out onto the streets to celebrate. Though the Lantern Festival symbolizes reunions (more on that later), it’s also a time of socializing and freedom.
To kick off the celebration, our students first learned about this festival’s 2,000-year history. This holiday honors family reunions and society, and features ancient spiritual traditions. In ancient China, women usually weren’t allowed out the house. But on this night, they could stroll freely, lighting lanterns, playing games and interacting with men. The wild, romantic stories associated with this holiday are why some say the Lantern Festival is the “true” Chinese Valentine’s Day, rather than Qixi (七夕) .
As the name implies, lanterns are an important part of the festival. Many different types of lanterns can be used to celebrate the holiday; they can take the form of small globes that fit in the palm of your hand, or gigantic ones as large as a parade float. Symbolic designs can be used as well. Our students were excited to make their own lanterns to send out good wishes. As part of another festival tradition, people write riddles on their lanterns, and everyone tries to solve one another’s riddles. The students had fun sharing their favorite riddles with the class.
There’s more to the festival than lighting lanterns and guessing riddles. Other activities include moon gazing, lion dances, dragon dances and eating rice balls. Our students particularly enjoyed watching videos of lion and dragon dances. The trademark food of the Lantern Festival is called yuan xiao, just like the festival itself. These are glutinous rice dumplings with sweet fillings made of syrup, red bean paste, black sesame paste or more. They can be steamed or fried, but are usually boiled and served in hot water. We boiled our yuan xiao in hot water with brown sugar in it. Students loved that we ended our Chinese New Year celebrations by having one of the tastiest Lunar New Year desserts in class.