Yuan Xiao Jie, otherwise known as the Lantern Festival, has traditionally marked the end of Chinese New Year celebrations. "Yuan" literally means Round and "Xiao" means Overnight, so it's only appropriate that it's celebrated on the first full moon of the year or the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
Origin of Festival
There are many different stories circulating about the origin of this ancient festival. One popular version goes like this:
A palace maid named Yuanxiao was getting very homesick, having been locked up in the palace all year round. Fortunately for Yuanxiao, a sympathetic senior palace official decided to help her out.
Shuo told the emperor that the God of Heaven had ordered the God of Fire to set the ancient capital city of Chang'an (now Xi'an) ablaze on the 16th day of the first month of the lunar year. And the only way to prevent this from happening was to appease the God of Fire by setting off firecrackers, hanging up red lanterns all over the city and make an offering of dumplings. Shuo suggested that Yuanxiao be allowed to present her dumplings to the fire god and save the city of Chang'an.
The emperor bought the story and ordered everyone to stay up the entire night with the lighted lanterns and to set off numerous firecrackers. Yuanxiao took advantage of the diversion to reunite with her family. Of course, nothing happened to the city and the emperor had such a good time that he ordered his people to carry on with the tradition over the following years. And that is why lanterns are lit and dumplings called Yuan Xiao (in honor of the palace maid) are served on this festive day. The round dumplings also symbolize family unity and completeness.
It was said that heavenly spirits would come out on the first full moon after the lunar New Year and fly in the night sky. To get a better view of these spirits, the people would hold torches up to the sky. Over time, these torches were replaced by lanterns and everyone would crowd the street to look at them.
Other sources suggest that the Lantern Festival may have originated in ancient times as a ceremony to welcome the increase in light and warmth of the sun after a cold winter. It may have also been a ceremony to pray for rain in preparation for planting season. Historical records from various periods dating back to the Han dynasty reveal that the Lantern Festival has changed over the centuries.
During the Han dynasty, the Lantern Festival was an occasion to honor Tai Yi, the God of the Polar Star. In later times, emperors wrote poems in praise of the decorated lanterns, shifting away the religious significance of earlier celebrations.
During the last days of the Sui Dynasty, Emperor Yang Di, turned the Lantern Festival into an entertainment spectacle to show off his wealth to foreign merchants. Stages were set up on both sides of the city's busiest street and thousands of actors and musicians were recruited to put on opera performances that lasted for an entire month.
Li Shimin, the founder of the Tang Dynasty, suspended all Lantern festival celebrations for a number of years, for fear of mass revolts from the people during times of turmoil. Once peace was restored and prosperity returned, the popular folk festival was revived for the benefit of the common people.
Whatever the origins of the Lantern Festival may be, the festival does provides an opportunity for families to get together for some festivities and to enjoy some food together - two very important elements of the Chinese culture.