Lantern Festival in 2021 » History, Traditions, Activities & Food

The festivities for the Chinese New Year are concluded by celebrating the Lantern Festival on the 15th day. With its origin dating back to over 2000 years in ancient times, Chinese culture has developed numerous meanings for the festival. Its essence is the celebration of family reunion and society and it features ancient spiritual traditions. It starts with displaying of lanterns and later floods like an ocean of lanterns in the sky. Traditional folk dances are also performed in the festival with fireworks in the park. The ceremony lasts throughout the night with neon lanterns and paper lanterns.

Lantern Festival

Some popular activities observed during this event include traditional lantern lighting, moon-gazing, and eating rice balls. If you look at the Lunar Calendar, the celebration takes place on January 15.

If you want to know more about festivities in China, read Chinese New Year Calendar 2021 for the updated schedule of events. Meanwhile, the following are the dates of past and future Festivals using the Gregorian Calendar:

  • 2017- February 11
  • 2018- February 16
  • 2019- February 19
  • 2020- February 8
  • 2021- February 26

The Significance of the Lantern Festival in Chinese Culture

The Spring Festival is time set aside for family. Age-old traditions like the reunion dinner, visiting in-laws on the second day emphasize the importance of family in Chinese culture. It is only until the fifth day that stores reopen and people go back to their regular routines. But on the 15th day of the celebration, everyone goes out onto the streets to paint the town red and commemorate the celebration.

hundreds of sky lanterns released into the sky during the lantern festival
Popular activities observed during the Lantern Festival include traditional lantern lighting, moon gazing, and eating rice balls.

In Ancient China, women were barely allowed to go out of the house except on the night of the Festival. They would stroll around freely, participate in lighting lanterns, play games, and interact with others around them including men. This is why some people would refer to the occasion as the true Chinese Valentine’s Day.

The celebration also has religious significance. It was important in ancient Chinese Paganism and is still relevant in modern-day Buddhism and ethnic minority cultures. If you’re interested in folklore, check out our list of famous Chinese New Year myths.


Many Chinese scholars agree that the celebration started out over 2000 years ago in the Western Han Dynasty. Emperor Wu (汉武帝) dedicated this day for people to perform worship rituals for Taiyi (太一神), one of the rulers of the universe.

There was an intense struggle for power and unrest after his reign ended until Emperor Wen (汉文帝) took over. To commemorate the return of peace, the new emperor designated the 15th as a national holiday. Every household would light lanterns and the occasion became known as 闹元宵 (nào yuán xiāo). “Nào” can be interpreted as having a good time.

Later in the Eastern Han Dynasty, Emperor Ming discovered that Buddhist monks would light candles on the 15th for Buddha. Being a devout Buddhist himself, he ordered the palace and temples to be lit with candles and for his constituency to hang lanterns on the 15th. Both these junctures in history shaped the Lantern Festival we know today.

Lantern Festival Celebration

The duration of the celebrations varied throughout history. During the Ming Dynasty, the celebration lasted around a month. Currently, the event is not technically considered a national holiday so there are no days off. However, there are holidays today that coincides with the celebration so they are often celebrated together.

Torch Festival (火把节)

The purpose of celebrating the Torch Festival is to express wishes of a good harvest to scare away insects and pests. Children and adults alike would participate in the festivity. The children would gather firewood and tree branches for the adults to light. Entire communities would dance in the fields from dusk until dawn while holding these torches. Today, it is still celebrated in some regions of Southwest China.

lantern festival: a community gathered together with some holding up torches
People celebrate the Torch Festival to express wishes of a bountiful harvest.

Vegetable Stealing Festival (偷菜节)

On the 15th, groups of girls from the Miao ethnicity would steal Chinese cabbage from other people’s fields. They would not be reprimanded even when they are caught by the owner, but they are forbidden from stealing from friends and family.

a woman holding a large chinese cabbage
The girl who eats the most cabbage during the festival is believed to get married first.

They would gather all their stolen cabbage and feast on them. It is believed that the girl who eats the most cabbage will get married ahead of everyone else.  Cabbage is also a popular ingredient in some of the best Chinese New Year food!

Lights and Lanterns

As the name of the festival suggests, lanterns are the highlights of the occasion. It was also formerly called Shang Yuan (上元) and was dedicated to the heavenly palace (天宫).

People would get together in a yard and gather offerings for the gods. They would set aside a lit lantern to represent a god’s seat. You can also check out our article on classic Chinese New Year superstitions.

The lanterns themselves have numerous variations. They can come in the form of a globe that could fit in the palm of your hand to something as large as a parade float. People also make lanterns in the shape of auspicious symbols and characters.

bright-colored lanterns displayed during the lantern festival
Lanterns of different styles and colors can be seen during the occasion.

One of the more basic and popular designs is the Kongming lantern (孔明灯), also known as the sky lantern (天灯). In the past, they were used to signify that people were safe after an attack. Nowadays, they are used to express wishes.

a boy about to release a kongming lantern into the sky
The sky lantern is used to express personal wishes.

The Chinese term for “sky lantern” (天灯—tiān dēng) also sounds similar to the term for “adding children” 添丁 (tiān ding). For this reason, they were often given to newlyweds or couples who have yet to bear children. Pregnant women are sometimes given a pair of small lanterns as wishes for health and safety for both the mother and the unborn child.

Traditions and Activities

Like many Chinese traditional celebrations, the Lantern Festival has its own unique set of activities other than lighting lanterns. In the Northern province of Hebei, there are jǐng xíng lā huā (井陉拉花) performances during the celebration.  People would dance to the beat of drums while holding fans and parasol-like props. This dance is often featured in the famous Spring Festival Gala.

performers dancing the jǐng xíng lā huā during the lantern festival
Dancers use fans and parasol-like props when performing the jǐng xíng lā huā.

Check out for Chinese New Year traditions and discover the perfect outfits in Chinese New Year clothes. Also, learn how to decorate in our article on Chinese New Year decorations.


In ancient China, one of the folks’ favorite pastimes was to ask and answer riddles while indulging in wine. This was later integrated with the celebration as people started writing riddles on the lanterns. They are very popular for festival-goers of all ages because they require you to think critically and outside the box. Some Chinese love stories even suggest you can catch the attention of your crush through these riddles!  

Dragon Dances on Lantern Festival (耍龙灯)

Dragon dance has a long history in Chinese culture. Performers of this dance comprise a team of experienced dancers who manipulate a long and flexible figure of a dragon. Poles are positioned at regular intervals along the length of the figure.

dragon dancers manipulating a long and flexible figure of a dragon on festival
Experienced dancers manipulate a long and flexible figure of a dragon.

The dragon symbolizes Chinese culture and is believed to be bearers of good luck. The longer the figure of the dragon is, the more luck it brings to the community.

Lion Dances on Lantern Festival (舞狮子)

The Lion dance can be witnessed in various celebrations in China including holidays, weddings, and even store openings. Figures of the lion are often elaborately designed with movable eyes and mouth. Their mouths open as a gesture of demand for food or red pockets. They sometimes even roll around and play like oversized cats.

four performers manipulating the figure of two lions
The costume for the lion dance is often elaborately designed with moving parts.

Chinese Stilts (踩高跷)

Arising out of Chinese opera, stilt performances have long been a spectacle during the celebration. The costumes and height of the stilts vary depending on the characters.

a group of performers in colorful costumes dancing on stilts
The costumes and height of the stilts vary depending on the characters.

Chinese Lantern Festival Food

Rice balls are the most popular food during the celebration and one of the most well-known Chinese New Year desserts! They are made of glutinous rice filled with sweet stuffing made of syrup, red bean paste, black sesame paste, and other ingredients. They are usually boiled and served with hot water but they can also be steamed or fried.

rice balls served in a bowl of bean curd on festival
Rice balls are made of glutinous rice filled with sweet stuffing made of sweet ingredients!

The Lantern Festival may mark the end of the celebrations for the Chinese New Year. But it is certainly one of the most fun-filled days throughout the whole event!

Want to discover your fortune? Read your horoscope of Year of the Snake, Year of the Dragon, Year of the Ox, and more.


What does the Chinese Lantern Festival symbolize?

The Lantern Festival is known as Yuan Xiao Festival. This festival is celebrated to honor the deceased ancestors. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the year. This festival promotes peace, forgiveness, and aims to restore the friendly relation.

Are you ready for the Festival?

With lantern riddles, lantern displays of colorful lanterns by the Chinese people, Lantern Festival is one of the most significant and a major event in Chinese cultures. With these traditions and activities, we can have an exciting celebration of the Lantern Festival. Other visitors from all over the world come to witness the magic. The ceremony lasts thoughout th evening with hundreds of lanterns up in the sky. The ancient people and modern times have no difference because they all follow the same tradition being passed down. A night for families and when thousands of family enjoy quality time together.  Do you find it interesting too? Let me know your ideas and insights in the comment section below.

6 thoughts on “Lantern Festival in 2021 » History, Traditions, Activities & Food”

  1. One of my dreams is to experience this kind of celebration with my family. And reading this article was such fun to do for the reason that it gives me enough knowledge of the true meaning of this celebration. I hope I can go to China and experience it.

  2. I want to experience this kind of celebration. My friends used to experience it with her family and they said that it was wonderful.

  3. I had experienced this celebration with my friend at their house. It’s such a wonderful experience that everyone should try.

  4. I’m really happy every time I saw someone perform a dragon dance on the street. I’m saying this for tha reason that I feeling that luck and prosperity are coming my way.

  5. I and my hubby are planning to celebrate the lantern festival this coming year 2020. It was one of my dreams so I can’t wait for it to happen.

  6. The ‘new way’ is called the ‘green Lantern Lantern’ . it’s called the “green lantern” – it’s not as big as the traditional Chinese lantern but it can be used to track your movements and other objects of activity for various purposes.


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