Thursday, February 9, 2012

Taiwanese Traditions: The Lantern Festival

Lanterns from last years Lantern Festival

For the second year in a row, my wife and I have tried to make it to the Lantern Festival in our community.  Last year, it was on Sunday, which make it impossible for us to go, but this year it was on Monday.  The weather was beautiful that day, too.  Monday is the day we usually plan to go somewhere and do something.  We went, but we couldn't find it.

It was interesting because we went on the Taoyuan County website, and they talked about it being on Nankan Creek, but it wasn’t too specific about what part of the creek.  I would have thought that someone could have put a Google map on there to show where to go, but they didn’t.  I’m making myself a promise right here; right now, that next year I will make it to the festival.  To me, it’s the most interesting of all the festivals, which happen in Taiwan.  There is one other celebration that holds an interest for me, the Yan Shui Fireworks festival where they fire fireworks right at you.  You see people wearing heavy clothing and their motorcycle helmets while the fireworks smash against them.  That would be fun to see but I’m not sure about participating.  I’m old and slow and I think I’d be a sitting duck.

Lantern from the Year of the Rabbit
The Lantern Festival usually lasts about a month or couple of weeks, this year in Taoyuan County the festival lasted from January 28 through February 6, and is sometimes called, “little New Year.”  The Lunar New Year is, of course, the Big New Year.

There are a number of legends associated with the origin of this festival.  Many of the legends are associated with relationships between people and their gods. I found one of them to be very interesting:

The first is a legend that tells of a beautiful crane that flew from heaven to earthy.  When the crane landed on earth the people of a certain village killed it.  The Jade Emperor (The Emperor of Heaven) was angry and sent an army to destroy the people and the village.  Apparently the crane was the Jade Emperor’s favorite bird, so his plan was to destroy the village through a storm of fire on the fifteenth day of the first month according to the lunar calendar.

The Jade Emperor’s daughter warned the village of their impending disaster so that they could prepare.  The village people were frantic because thy had no idea how to turn away the wrath of the Jade Emperor until one wise man came up with an idea.  He said to hang lanterns and light bonfires throughout the city, so that when the soldiers arrived, they would think the village was already ablaze and leave without further damage.  The villagers embarked on that particular plan and the village was saved.

The interesting thing to me is the similarity to the legend surrounding the origin of the Chinese New Year traditions.  See Taiwanese Traditions:  Chinese New Year:  The Legend of Nian.

There are a number of ways that the lantern festival is celebrated in modern Taiwan.  This year, the Taoyuan Lantern Festival was an aquatic festival, where lanterns were lit and floated in Nankan Creek.  In Pingxi, the lanterns were lit and released into the sky. And In Yanshui, fireworks were lit and flew through the crowd.  In each, there are lanterns that are made.  Many are complex works of art that depict people and animals, as well as the sky lanterns on which are written wishes for the new year.  These are lit and released into the sky.  There are also lanterns on which riddles are written and children sped time to solve the riddles. 

The Beautiful Crane of the legend
It is a fun time where families and friends get together and enjoy each other.  There is also a romantic feeling as young couples stroll together and spend time together.  In the early days this was the time when young people strolled the streets with their chaperones in the hopes of finding a spouse.  Matchmakers were busy in the weeks prior to the Lantern Festival trying to find the best matches for the young people.  As marriages in Taiwan are no longer arranged this part of the festival has disappeared.  Now young people enjoy the festival with their lovers.