Throughout Asia, lanterns have been used to commemorate cultural and spiritual celebrations for centuries. Sky lanterns can be traced back thousands of years to the Eastern Han Dynasty in China (25–220 C.E.), when the objects were used not only as decorative light sources but also as military signals that could communicate messages across long distances.
The history of lantern festivals is also believed to have begun during the Han Dynasty, though no one is certain when or how they came about. One theory goes that on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, monks would light lanterns in honor of Buddha, and eventually other people caught onto the custom and began lighting lanterns in honor of loved ones who had passed. Another more fanciful explanation goes that the Jade Emperor (a principal figure in Chinese mythology) threatened to burn down a village after its citizens accidentally killed his favorite pet crane. His daughter took pity on the townsfolk and instructed them to trick the Emperor into thinking their homes were already on fire by lighting lanterns and setting off fireworks—the plan worked. Afterward, villagers continued the tradition to commemorate the event.
Across the centuries, the tradition of lantern festivals has spread across Asia through trade, immigration, and colonialism, meshing with local cultures and customs—they now occur throughout the continent and wherever there are large populations of people of Asian descent.
From a floating lantern festival in Hawai‘i to Vietnam’s monthly full moon festival, here are seven radiant lantern celebrations around the world:
1. Full Moon Lantern Festival
Where: Hoi An, Vietnam
When: Hoi An’s 2023 Full Moon Lantern Festival falls on January 5, February 4, March 5, April 4, May 3, June 1, July 1, July 31, August 29, September 28, October 28, November 26, December 26
In Hoi An, the Full Moon Lantern Festival is held on the 14th day of the lunar calendar every month to celebrate the full moon. In Buddhist tradition, the full moon is considered an ideal time to meditate, reflect, observe rituals, and honor deceased ancestors. 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.
2. Spring Lantern Festival
Where: Hong Kong
When: February 5, 2023
The annual Spring Lantern Festival marks the end of the Chinese New Year and celebrates family, society, and the coming of spring. Although specific customs vary regionally across the Chinese-speaking world, the most prevalent activities involve lighting lanterns, guessing riddles, eating tangyuan (glutinous rice balls usually packed with fillings like sweet red beans or black sesame paste), 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. Because travel to China is still closed, consider checking out Hong Kong’s Spring Lantern Festival.
3. Pingxi Lantern Festival
Where: Pingxi District, Taiwan
When: February 5, 2023
The Spring Lantern Festival is also celebrated 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 rural villages of the Pingxi District, including Jingtong, 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.
4. Lantern Floating Hawai‘i
Where: O‘ahu, Hawai‘i
Each Memorial Day on Oahu’s south shore, Lantern Floating Hawai‘i 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. (The Buddhist community retrieves the lanterns from the Pacific afterward, cleans and repairs them, and stores them for use in future festivals.) Dates for the 2023 celebration have yet to be determined, but the festival usually takes place in late May.
5. Yi Peng Festival
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
When: November 27, 2023
The Yi Peng Festival is celebrated across northern Thailand, but the biggest ceremony takes place in Chiang Mai each year. It’s believed that by sending the Buddha an offering into the sky, a person’s spirit can be cleansed and their misfortunes eased.
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 up to $300.
6. Loi Krathong
When: November 28, 2023
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.
7. Nagasaki Lantern Festival
Where: Nagasaki, Japan
When: January 22 to February 5, 2023
Held over the first 15 days of Lunar New Year to mark the beginning of spring, the Nagasaki Lantern Festival is believed to have been started by Chinese immigrants and became an official city holiday in 1994. The festival is held in Nagasaki’s Chinatown, the oldest in Japan because Nagasaki was the only port open to foreign traders during the Heian and Edo periods. In addition to a fantastical display of over 15,000 lanterns, attendees can also expect Chinese lion and dragon dances, an Emperor’s parade, a beauty contest, and even acrobats. After you’re done taking in the sights, consider perusing the many snack stalls that line the streets of Chinatown during the parade for classic Japanese street foods like yakitori (charcoal grilled Japanese barbecue) and takoyaki (bite-size pieces of octopus cooked in a savory batter).
This article originally appeared online in March 2019; it was updated on December 27, 2021, and most recently on November 14, 2022, by Mae Hamilton, to include current information.