The Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month, usually in February or March by the Gregorian calendar. As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), it had become a festival with great significance.
This day's important activity is watching lanterns. Throughout the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), Buddhism flourished in China. One emperor heard that Buddhist monks would watch sarira, or the ash remains from the cremation of the Buddha's body, and light lanterns to worship the Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. So the emperor ordered the lighting of lanterns in the imperial palace and temples to show respect to the Buddha on this day. Later, the Buddhist rite developed into a grand festival among common people and its influence expanded from the Central Plains to the whole of China.
Up until today, the lantern festival is still held each year around the country. Lanterns of various shapes and sizes are hung in the streets, attracting countless visitors. Children hold homemade or bought lanterns to stroll with along the streets, extremely excited.
"Guessing lantern riddles" is an essential part of the Festival. A lantern owner writes a riddle on a piece of paper and posts them on the lantern. If someone gets the solution to the riddle, s/he can pull the paper out and go to the lantern owner to check the answer. If they are right, they will get a little gift. The activity emerged during people's enjoyment of lanterns in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). As riddle guessing is interesting and full of wisdom, it has become popular among all social strata.
People will eat yuan xiao, or rice dumplings, on this day, so it is also called the "Yuan Xiao Festival." Yuan xiao also has another name, tang yuan. These are small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour with rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil as filling. Tang yuan can be boiled, fried or steamed. They taste sweet and delicious. What's more, tang yuan in Chinese has a similar pronunciation with the words meaning "reunion". So people eat them to denote union, harmony and happiness for the family.
In the daylight hours of the Festival, performances such as a dragon lantern dance, a lion dance, a land boat dance, a yangge dance, walking on stilts and beating drums while dancing will be staged. During the night, except for the magnificent lanterns there are no lights until the fireworks go off, forming a beautiful scene. Most families save some fireworks from the Spring Festival and let them off during the Lantern Festival. Some local governments will even organize a fireworks display. That night when the first full moon enters the New Year, people become really intoxicated by the impressive fireworks and the bright moon high in the sky.