Sky lanterns can be traced back thousands of years to the Eastern Han Dynasty in China (25–220 C.E.), when the bright, floating objects were used not only as light sources but also to relay important military signals across long distances. Today, however, the traditional lanterns hold a slightly lighter significance, as they’re commonly used to commemorate cultural and spiritual celebrations across Asia and in various destinations around the world with large populations of Asian descent. These astonishing lantern festivals from Vietnam to Hawaii find their roots in meaningful traditions—seek them out for some brightness in your life.
The annual Spring Lantern Festival in China can be traced back approximately 2,000 years to when an Eastern Han Dynasty emperor was said to have ordered that all temples, households, and royal palaces light lanterns on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month to show respect to the Buddha. Today, the festival marks the end of the Chinese New Year and celebrates family, society, and the coming of spring. Although specific customs vary regionally, the most prevalent activities involve lighting lanterns, guessing riddles, eating tangyuan (ball-shaped dumplings), and watching traditional lion dance performances. China’s largest Spring Lantern Festival celebration takes place in Nanjing, the capital of the eastern Jiangsu province, but events are held in other cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, as well as in rural regions across the country.
When: The next Spring Lantern Festival will take place on February 8, 2020.
Full Moon Lantern Festival
Hoi An, Vietnam
In Buddhist tradition, the full moon is considered an ideal time to meditate, reflect, observe rituals, and honor deceased ancestors. As part of this belief, the Full Moon Lantern Festival in Hoi An is held on the 14th day of the lunar calendar every month. At sundown, homes and businesses across the city turn off their electricity and allow lantern lights to illuminate the area. Locals and visitors can release lanterns onto the river, an act that is thought to bring happiness and health.
When: In 2019, the Full Moon Lantern Festival takes place in Hoi An on April 18, May 18, June 16, July 16, August 14, September 12, October 10, November 10, and December 9.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
The idea behind this traditional festival stems from the belief that by sending the Buddha an offering into the sky, a person’s spirit can be cleansed and their misfortune can be healed. The Yi Peng Festival is celebrated across northern Thailand, but the biggest ceremony takes place in Chiang Mai each year. During the event, which occurs on the “full moon day” during the second month of the Lanna lunar calendar (the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar), thousands of rice paper lanterns called khom loi are released into the sky. The religiously significant lantern ceremony used to be for monks’ participation only, but today tourists can attend by purchasing highly coveted entry tickets, most of which are sold through authorized tourism agencies and typically cost about $300.
When: The next Yi Peng Festival is set to take place from November 11-13, 2019. (Dates are subject to change.)
The Yi Peng Festival coincides with Loi Krathong, a traditional festival celebrated widely across Thailand. Both annual events are considered “festivals of light,” but Loi Krathong celebrations involve releasing a krathong (a basket traditionally made out of a banana stalk and stocked with candles and incense) down a body of water as opposed to sending lanterns floating into the sky. Loi Krathong lasts for one night on the full moon of the 12th month of the traditional Thai calendar. The most popular celebrations take place in Bangkok and Sukhothai, but travelers in Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng Festival will also be able to observe Loi Krathong events in northern Thailand’s largest city.
When: Upcoming Loi Krathong celebrations will fall on November 13, 2019.
Pingxi Lantern Festival
Pingxi District, Taiwan
The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is held annually in Taiwan’s Pingxi District, a mountainous region located approximately one hour east of Taipei. Marking the first full moon of every Lunar New Year—normally during February or March—lantern releases are held in the rural villages of Jington, Pingxi, and Shifen (the festival’s largest event takes place in Shifen). During the festival, thousands of people gather to scribble their wishes on colorful paper lanterns before releasing them into the sky in the hopes that their prayers will be answered. The release of the lanterns, which also commemorates the official end of Chinese New Year, is considered a symbol of embracing an optimistic future.
When: The next Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival will take place on February 8, 2020.
Lantern Floating Hawaii
Each Memorial Day on Oahu’s south shore, Lantern Floating Hawaii brings thousands of residents and visitors together on the beach to honor and remember their deceased loved ones. The island’s first festival, hosted by Shinnyo-en, an international Buddhist community, took place in 1999 at Keehi Lagoon. But since 2002, the festival has been held at Ala Moana Beach, a sandy stretch between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. The ceremony begins with a series of traditional performances by local musical groups; a prayer led by the head of the Shinnyo-en community, Her Holiness Shinso Ito, follows. Then, participants send floating lanterns—meant to inspire remembrance, hope, and good fortune—into the Pacific Ocean as the sun sets.
When: The next Lantern Floating Hawaii will take place on May 27, 2019.