The popular Chinese Lantern Festival known as “Yuan Xiao” Festival or Shang Yuan Festival in China or “Chap Goh Meh” Festival in Malaysia and Singapore " or "Tết Nguyên Tiê in Vietnam is celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar which typically falls in February or March of the Gregorian calendar. This Festival is not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival which is sometime referred to as “The Lantern Festival” in parts of south-east Asia such as Singapore and Malaysia. Lantern festival commemorates the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Historians believe that this festival was celebrated since 206 B.C by the Western Han Dynasty. On this day children carry paper lanterns in the night and go out to the temples and solve the riddles pasted on the lanterns. Yuan month is the first month in Chinese almanac and the night in mandarin language is called as Xiao hence the festival got its name as Yuan Xiao Festival in China.
According to Chinese custom, during the first full moon night of the new year, when the bright full moon is shining in the sky, there should be thousands of colorful and brightly lit lanterns hung out for people to appreciate. During this occasion, people will enjoy a family reunion and try to solve puzzles on lanterns.
Watching various kinds of lanterns is the important activity on this day. In Ancient China during Han Dynasty Buddhism flourished in China. Legend says that one of the Han emperor heard that the Buddhist monks , on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month light lanterns to worship Buddha and, watch sarira, or remains from the cremation of Buddha's body, so he dictated to light lanterns throughout the royal palace and temples to express respect to Lord Buddha on this day. In the years to follow, this Buddhist ritual formulated into a grand festival with the common people and its influence spread from the Central Plains to the whole of China.
Another legend ties this celebration with Taoism. Taoist god, Tianguan’s, birthday falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. He is known to grant good luck and fortune and is believed that he loves all kinds of entertainment and hence his followers organize various kinds of activities including lighting of lanterns and pray him for good luck.
One more myth links the Lantern Festival with an ancient Chinese fighter, Lan Moon, who led an uprising against the oppressive emperor in ancient China.
However, Lan died while invading the city and the succeeding triumphant renegades marked the festival in his identity.
In some regions, this festival is also regarded as the Chinese interpretation of St. Valentine's Day. In early days, Young people gathered in the streets hoping to find their love mate. Matchmakers had a heyday, busy settling matches.
Even today the lantern festival is celebrated with zeal and interest all over the country. Various kinds and shapes of lanterns are flaunted and paraded in the streets. Lantern Parades attract countless tourists and visitors. It is children’s favorite festival as they hold self-made or bought lanterns and parade them in the streets.
One of the major attractions of this festival is guessing the riddles. As mentioned above these lanterns are decorated with puzzles and if anyone has an answer to the puzzle they can approach the lantern owner to verify their key. If the answer is correct then the lantern owner will gift them with a small token of appreciation.
This puzzle activity with Lantern festival could be associated with the Song dynasty (960-1279). As puzzle solving is exciting and full of intelligence, it became an essential part of the lantern festival and became very popular with the intellectual strata.
During the daytime, one could witness many performances, some of the more popular stage shows are the Lion Dance, Dragon Lantern Dance, Walking on stilt poles, land boat dance and beating drums while dancing. When night falls, apart from the lanterns, fireworks lit the sky making it a beautiful scene.