Lantern Festival Brings Light and Joy to Lunar New Year

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Taiwan’s diverse society fuses ancient traditions with cutting-edge modernity, and nothing underscores this duality better than the calendars seen in homes and offices. Like their counterparts in the West, Taiwan’s workers, civil servants, and students generally refer to the Gregorian calendar when making appointments and meeting deadlines. The Chinese lunar calendar, however, is used to calculate the timing of festivals, weddings, and funerals. For that reason, most Taiwanese calendars show the lunar date beside the Gregorian date.

The lunar calendar, also known as the farmer’s calendar, is an ancient and highly complex system of reckoning dates according to both the phase of the moon and the solar year. Pious individuals refer to it because their beliefs compel them to burn joss paper and avoid meat on certain days.

The start of the lunar year always falls between January 22 and February 19 on the Gregorian calendar, and the Chinese Lunar New Year period is far more important to Taiwanese people than Christmas or the evening of December 31. Schools close for around three weeks. With the exception of hotels, restaurants, and shops, business grinds to a halt for several days. During the vacation, ethnic Chinese throughout the world feast, visit relatives, clean their houses, and present cash-filled envelopes to the younger and older generations.

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Just as the Feast of the Epiphany marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Lantern Festival is the traditional climax of the Lunar New Year season. The festival, which Mandarin speakers usually call Yuanxiao Jie, was brought to Taiwan more than 400 years by early migrants from mainland China. Originally, the festival was celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month (the first full moon of the new year), but the modern event is a multi-day spectacular for which dazzling lanterns of all shapes and sizes are just one facet.

Each Lantern Festival also includes performances by leading folk arts troupes, as well as sensational pyrotechnics. No one does fireworks better than the Chinese, who invented them 1,300 years ago. As with other traditional fiestas in Taiwan, the event is associated with a particular food. The preferred treat at this time of year is a bowl of dumplings called yuanxiao or tangyuan. Made of glutinous rice flour, they are often filled with walnuts, sweet syrup, or candied tangerine peel. Savory versions contain minced meat or sesame paste. Served either hot or cold, they make for a delicious dessert or mid-afternoon snack.

The festival’s theme each year is the New Year’s animal sign on the Sheng-xiao, a 12-year cycle often called the Chinese Zodiac. Just as Westerners usually know their star sign, so everyone of Chinese descent knows which zodiac year he or she was born in. The forthcoming New Year’s Eve (February 18, 2015) will be the final day of the Year of the Horse. The following day will be the first of the Year of the Ram (sometimes translated as the Year of the Sheep or Goat). The other 10 animals in the cycle are monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, and snake. Just as one’s star sign is thought to influence one’s character, people in Taiwan have long believed those born in certain years tend to have similar personalities.

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The 2015 Taiwan Lantern Festival will be held at three locations in Taichung City in central Taiwan. The principal venue will be the Wuri High-Speed Rail Special Zone, adjacent to Taichung’s bullet-train station, where there are exhibition halls as well as wide open spaces. Among the lanterns on display will be the main theme lantern from 2003’s Year of the Ram festival – a full Shengxiao cycle ago – which was also held in Taichung.

Another featured lantern is being created under the supervision of Professor Sun Ching-Cherng to represent the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015). Taiwan’s enthusiasm for the United Nations-backed IYL 2015 is doubly fitting. Not only are modern lanterns illuminated by LEDs rather than burning wicks, but the island is a global leader in LED design and manufacturing. Sun is a scientist based at Taiwan’s prestigious National Central University, and among his achievements is an LED street-lighting system that is both energy efficient and minimizes light pollution.

Thanks to coverage by Discovery Channel and other international media, the Taiwan Lantern Festival has grown into one of East Asia’s most popular annual events. The 2014 edition in central Taiwan’s Nantou County welcomed 7.3 million visitors. Several of Taiwan’s cities and counties organize local festivities, so it can be reckoned that at least half of the country’s 23 million people take part.

Taiwan is not a big island, but for most of its history travel from one part to another was difficult. As a result, and also because several different ethnic groups have made their homes here, various regions have distinct customs. One of Taiwan’s best-known local expressions of the Lantern Festival happens in New Taipei City’s Pingxi District.

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More than 100 years ago, Pingxi’s isolated mountain communities were plagued by banditry. Residents got into the habit of lighting a paper lantern each dusk and sending it skyward, so nearby hamlets would know all was well.

Nowadays, most visitors go to Pingxi to enjoy a scenic train journey and buy a ready-to-fly lantern from a local vendor. Before launching the lantern, it is customary to write something on the side using a calligraphy brush – perhaps a general wish for health and happiness, or maybe a more specific request for success in business or love. Releasing a personalized lantern and watching it rise in the night sky until it has shrunk to a yellow speck is a romantic moment thousands of couples have shared.

In southern Taiwan, Yanshui in Tainan offers a unique experience on the 15th day of the first lunar month each year. This ancient town’s Beehive Fireworks Festival is an extraordinary audience-participation fireworks parade that commemorates the defeat of a cholera epidemic in the 19th century.

On the east coast, Taitung’s Bombing of Han Dan ritual, held on the same day, is equally unforgettable. Volunteers take turns representing Han Dan, a god of war and wealth, by standing on top of a bamboo platform carried through the streets. Once on board, and decked out in nothing but red shorts, gloves, and goggles, they are pelted with firecrackers. The god is said to hate the cold, and bestows good fortune on those who keep him warm by showering him with fireworks.

For more details about these events and other information useful to visitors, go to the Tourism Bureau’s Chinese-English-Japanese Lantern Festival website (http://theme.taiwan.net.tw/2015taiwanlantern/index.html) or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765, free within Taiwan).

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