Chinese festivities usually center around food and the Lantern Festival is no exception. The traditional food served during this festival are glutinous rice-flour balls or dumplings made with many types of fillings and served in a soup. The fillings inside the dumplings can be either sweet or salty. Fillings are made of sesame, osmanthus flowers, walnuts, bean paste or tangerine peels. The salty variety is filled with meat, vegetables or both. These dumplings are called Yuan Xiao, in the northern parts of China or Tang Yuan in the south.
Another custom associated with the Lantern Festival is known as “eating taro under the lanterns.” First, a pot of taro would be boiled till soft. As midnight approaches, the entire family would gather underneath the brightest lanterns to eat the taro provided. It is believed that this would make people more clear-sighted.
Of course, what’s a lantern festival without lanterns? People would decorate their homes with as many brightly lit lanterns and set off as many firecrackers as possible. For the educated, there was also a very popular game called “Guessing the Lantern’s Riddle (Cai Deng Mi).” A number of riddle would be written on slips of paper and then pasted onto the lanterns for people to figure out. These riddles were passed down over the years, but were often very obscure and difficult to decipher.
Dragon and Lion Dances
For entertainment there were always the dragon and lion dances. The lion dance probably originated during the Tang dynasty when itinerant jugglers and animal trainers from India first appeared in China. Since live lions weren’t always available, a cloth one served as an acceptable replacement. One man would manipulate the head and another the hindquarters. In earlier times, the lion dances also helped to scare off evil spirits.
Many troupes of lion dancers would often parade through the streets of a city or go from village to village. Each troupe would be composed of one or two lions, with two others luring the lions with large embroidered balls and accompanied by the beating of loud gongs and drums.
In the past, respectable women were often not allowed to go out of the house at night. But on Yuan Xiao night, young men and women would both go out into the streets to look at the lanterns, enjoy the festivities and mingle freely with one another. As a result, the Lantern Festival can be considered as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day!