Lantern festivals and events are becoming more and more popular in the UK. We take a look at why that might be and the significance of lanterns to the Chinese.
Legend of the Lantern
What are lanterns? Where did they come from? How did they originate? Obviously, lanterns are a light source that were previously used for illuminating spaces such as entranceways. They’re made with many materials but the most common ones in ancient China were paper and silk, perhaps with a wood or bamboo frame. And believe it or not, fireflies were also sometimes caught to be used as short-term lanterns.
So, they’re just used as light sources? Not entirely.
The tale goes like this. Once upon a time, sometime in 230 BC China, after Emperor Ming got a hold of Hindu scriptures he had a great temple built. He placed the scriptures and many paper lanterns in this temple as a way to symbolise the Buddha’s power. Paper lanterns have stood the test of time and still exist to this day bringing with them a host of other connotations, such as joy, celebration, good fortune and longevity; an object full of positive symbolism. It’s no wonder that people still use them.
So, how about sky lanterns? Well, this story begins in 3 BC China with historic figure Zhuge Liang. Liang was also known as Kongming so for the purposes of this story we’ll stick to Kongming. Kongming first used sky lanterns as a way to communicate with his troops. He found himself in a bad situation and needed to summon help against the enemy. Sky lanterns served their purpose in this situation and, funnily enough, this is how they obtained their alternative name ‘Kongming lanterns’.
Lighting the Festivals
If I said “Chinese lanterns” now, what would you think of? Would you think of either of these tales? I doubt it. Unless you’ve taken an extensive course in lantern history, in which case I applaud you.
But no, nowadays most people traditionally associate them with Chinese festivals.
Which festivals you ask? Number one: the Ghost Festival where people place lotus-shaped lanterns in rivers which are supposed to act as symbolic guides for their ancestors. Number two: the Lantern Festival where the lighting of many lanterns takes place to signal the lunar New Year celebration’s last day. Number three: the Mid-Autumn Festival where lanterns, which symbolise the sun and light, are used to celebrate the end of the harvest. And the last use, whilst not a festival, sees children take lanterns to temples to solve riddles on them in celebration of Chinese New Year.
West for the Winter
As was previously stated, lanterns are becoming more and more popular, so much so that the UK has seen a growth in lantern festivals.
Longleat’s Festival of Light is one of the UK’s earliest, and Europe’s largest, Chinese lantern festival, which transforms the Safari Park into a winter wonderland every year. Incredible, giant lanterns in all shapes and sizes can be seen there throughout the month of December into early January. As it’s a safari park, many of the lanterns come in animal form making it a spectacle to remember. The Magical Lantern Festival is another large Chinese festival making its debut in Roundhay Park, Leeds this year. Hosted in Europe’s largest city park, visitors can follow a trail around Roundhay Park and witness some of the most artistic and beautifully constructed lantern installations outside of China; lanterns which represent and celebrate Christmas, as well as Chinese culture and heritage.
What’s the reason for this growth in popularity? Well, a number of reasons could play into this. For the 380,000 Chinese people already living in the UK, it’s a reminder of their home and culture; a celebration of what’s important to them. China also provides one of the biggest numbers of new immigrants to the UK, with 40,000 Chinese migrants in 2014. Chinese lantern festivals would then have the purpose of welcoming and accommodating new migrants to their new home, providing them with a sense of comfort. The biggest reason, perhaps, may be to do with the British fascination for pretty lanterns, and the positive impact they bring for tourism. In the wintertime, stately homes and their gardens are probably not at their best; it’s cold, often wet and plants and shrubs lack colour. So what do they do to combat this? They usually hold ‘festive’ events that prominently feature lanterns and fairy lights, maybe with some ‘Christmas mulled wine’ or ‘winter hot chocolate’ included, in an effort to appeal to visitors. The beauty of the lanterns is a big draw as we move towards Christmas. We like to take festive-looking pictures and create magical moments with our family and, therefore, for the tourism industry, lanterns are great money-spinners. Also, the China outbound tourism market to Britain is growing with visits from China increasing 46% in 2015, making winter lantern events a great way to also accommodate to this growing market.
Some of the UK’s winter lantern events include Christmas at Kew, a winter trail throughout lantern-lit gardens, which is now in its fourth year. A botanical after dark experience awaits visitors; an experience boasting 60,000 patterned lights in the Tunnel of Lights. Similarly, Glow Wild at Wakehurst also offers a lantern-lit journey through the grounds and gardens of a spectacular Elizabethan mansion. As well as marvelling at the lanterns, visitors are able to absorb the architectural beauty of the mansion whilst enjoying marshmallows and hot chocolate. Events like these are found around the UK, each one displaying stunning light installations; another use it would seem for the historic Chinese lantern.
A beautiful tradition and, some would say, the more lanterns the better.
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