A Classroom Guide to Celebrating Lantern Festival

By Lottie Dowling | 15 February 2024

The Lantern Festival, known in China as Yuanxiao Festival, is celebrated on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year. It marks the conclusion of two weeks of festivities and is also a significant Chinese cultural event in its own right. As a centuries-old tradition, Lantern Festival holds important cultural and historical significance in China, linking back to the Han Dynasty. Over the years, it’s evolved—blending ancient customs with contemporary practices—into a celebration symbolising family unity and hope. In this blog, we uncover this culturally rich celebration and explore ways to learn more about it in the classroom through fun activities to do with your students.

Ties to the Lunar Calendar

The Lantern Festival follows the lunar calendar, just like Lunar or Chinese New Year. It is always celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the year. However, its date shifts annually in the Gregorian calendar, following the cycles of the moon. The Lantern Festival aligns with the first full moon after the Lunar New Year, marking the end of winter and the arrival of spring, which in ancient times held great meaning for people living so closely to the land and its seasons.

A Festival of Light

The festival derives its name from the tradition of hanging lanterns in homes and community spaces. The lanterns represent the illumination of one’s inner self and aspirations for a brighter future. Like many other global festivals of light, the vibrant displays are also a metaphor for dispelling the darkness of the previous year and looking forward to a “brighter future.”

Lantern shows, curated with large and creative lanterns are displayed throughout Lunar New Year and Lantern Festival across China.

How is Lantern Festival celebrated?

While some traditions may vary regionally across China, there are some activities that are observed nationwide to celebrate:

  • Lantern Displays: Families make and display lanterns and light shows around their homes and communities.
  • Eating Yuanxiao (glutinous rice ball): Yunxiao balls are the traditional food of this festival. Families and friends gather to enjoy these sweet rice balls, often filled with a variety of delicious ingredients.
  • Dragon and Lion Dances: In many public places you can see both Dragon and Lion Dances, accompanied by loud drumming and impressive acrobatics.
  • Fireworks and Firecrackers: Traditionally these are set off to scare away negative energy and are seen as a fun family activity.
  • Reunion Dinners: Families gather for a festive meal, sharing traditional dishes and celebrating together. The preparation and sharing of food reflects a sense of togetherness.

Global Festivals of Light

Lantern Festivals are not unique to China. There are other Lantern Festivals around the globe, which provide a wonderful opportunity for a global compare-and-contrast task. Explore a few of these more widely-known festivals with your class:

  • Hoi An, Vietnam: Full Moon Lantern Festival is a traditionally Buddhist Festival and is held every lunar calendar month on the 14th day. Lanterns are lit and released on rivers, and lights are turned off in homes and businesses, making this a visually enchanting celebration.
  • Hawaií, USA: Lantern Floating Festival also has Buddist roots and is held on Memorial Day for local residents to honor and remember their loved ones who have passed on.
  • Thailand: Yi Peng is celebrated in northern Thailand where their Buddist community releases rice paper lanterns into the sky. This festival is part of a larger national festival, Loi Krathong, known as the Festival of Lights.
  • Tibet, China: The Butter Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first Tibetan (lunar) month and it is the last day of the Tibetan New Year celebrations. Activities include: traditional foods cooked and eaten together, lanterns are made and lit (fueled by yak butter) and colourful statues are made of coloured butter.

There are also many global Festivals of Light, such as Diwali in India, that, similarly, use the symbolism of lanterns and lights to represent hope and peace.

Activities to do in the classroom

  • Make a Lantern: Meg’s Global Learning Activity Cards offer both easy and complex lantern-making options for a fun, engaging classroom activity. Once they are made, display them around your classroom and school. Consider creating information placards or posters about the Lantern Festival to be displayed alongside the lanterns to educate your school community.
  • Write Riddles: Riddles are traditionally attached to lanterns during Lantern Festival, sometimes there are even riddle-writing competitions! They are a fun way to develop your students’ writing skills, as well as their reading comprehension as they attempt to solve each other’s riddles! Find our Global Learning Activity Card for Riddles here.
  • Draw a Dragon: Dragon iconography is symbolic of luck in Chinese culture. During the festival you can see Dragon Dances in the community enjoyed by everyone. Draw your own Chinese dragons here.
  • Explore Origin Stories: Read these two origin stories to students and discuss with them which one they prefer.
  • Try Tangyuan (or Yuanxiao) sweet dumpling balls: Source ingredients from your local Asian grocery store or invite a parent or community member in to teach students how to make this delicious treat.
  • Research and create content on global lantern festivals: Students can find out more about Lantern Festival, presenting their information in a format that excites them. They may wish to compare and contrast their research with other global Lantern Festivals if they are up for a challenge.

Lantern Festival offers students an incredible opportunity to engage with other cultures and traditions through engaging, hands-on activities. Explore these resources with your students and enjoy!

Lottie Dowling is a Primary School trained educator who has worked in a number of education roles internationally for more than 20 years including state schools and international schools in London, China, and NZ. She has worked as a Drama and Literacy specialist, in ESL and EAL roles, and now specializes in Global Citizenship Education. She is currently the Manager of Going Global at Meg Languages.

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