The Chinese have been holding lantern festivals from as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BC and 25 AD), when Buddhist monks would light lanterns on the 15th day of the lunar year in honour of the Buddha. The quaint celebration was later adopted by the general population and spread throughout China and other parts of Asia. During the festival, houses are festooned with colourful lanterns, often with riddles written on them for children. If the riddle is answered correctly, the child earns a small gift. Festival celebrations also include lion and dragon dances, parades, and fireworks. Small glutinous rice balls filled with fruits and nuts are eaten during the festival. The round shape of the balls symbolizes wholeness and unity within the family. While I lived in Hong Kong, I was captivated by the numerous lantern celebrations held quite regularly and the various rituals that accompanied them. 


There are five major lantern festivals in other parts of Asia. Diwali in India is a four-day autumn event when clay lanterns are placed along walkways, people give each other gifts, and demons are warded off by burning symbolic figures. In Japan, paper bag lanterns are shaped into flowers and other delicate designs, which can be seen from far away during Tokyo’s Marine Day Lantern Festival which pays tribute to the ocean. Two lantern festivals, held in November, turn Thailand into a twinkling wonderland by sending off floating lotus baskets, full of candles, across the water. Sky lanterns define Yi Peng, the other Thai festival. Lanterns are constructed of bamboo and rice paper and light up the sky with their own kind of magic. Possibly the most spectacular Asian light festival is the Pingxi Lantern Festival which takes place outside Taipei, Taiwan every February. Thousands of lanterns are inscribed via calligraphy pen with personal wishes, then sent skyward. Discovery Channel’s TV show “Fantastic Festivals of the World” has highlighted the Taiwan Lantern Festival as one of the best festivals in the world. Vietnam’s Hoi An Lantern Festival takes place during the full moon each month. Rather than lanterns being sent into the sky, artist-designed versions hang throughout the town and add an ambient light via candles. Some float along the peaceful river and guests can even hop aboard a sampan, or traditional canoe, for the most incredible vantage point for views.

Lantern festivals are also held in a number of USA cities. Salt Lake City hosts a spectacular Sky Lantern Festival in May with music, food and the big moment of the lantern release. The lanterns are 100% eco-friendly, and attendees get to adorn them with messages. The Rise Lantern Festival happens in Las Vegas in October. Musical entertainment leads up to the moment when everyone lights their lantern, with individual written messages, before they are released into the Nevada sky.


The last census taken in 2018 revealed that 171,309 Chinese lived in Auckland. This is a similar population to Hamilton, the country’s fourth largest city. Apart from locally born, the vast majority come from communist China with small numbers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. As Auckland’s most colourful annual festival and New Zealand’s largest Chinese cultural celebration, the Auckland Lantern Festival showcases traditional and contemporary Chinese culture and stories. The festival coincides with the Chinese lunar calendar and every year a new Chinese zodiac animal is celebrated. 

The first Auckland Lantern Festival was held in 2000 by the Asia New Zealand Foundation in partnership with the Auckland City Council and was a one-day event at Albert Park. For this occasion, 300 second hand lanterns were brought in from Singapore and an estimated 40,000 people attended. Over the following decade, the event has grown to a four-day family-friendly spectacle, having moved venues over the years from Albert Park to the Auckland Domain for the 2016 – 2020 period.


The Auckland Chinese population of several generations, plus newer immigrants, and Chinese international students attend the show. People from other ethnic backgrounds are also drawn to the colourful festival. It is an opportunity to showcase Chinese culture to a wide audience, with the festival now a must-do event for a broad non-Chinese audience. Apart from the lanterns themselves, Chinese rock bands, reggae acts, acrobats, dough and sugar artists, calligraphers, dance groups, traditional puppet shows and tea ceremonies are on offer. There are also theatre performers from China, martial arts displays and workshops and food stalls selling authentic Chinese cuisine and a fireworks finale. Since the festival began two decades ago more than 800 performers from China and Taiwan have appeared at the event.

In 2019, a record 200,000 attended this Auckland Chinese Festival which had over 100 food stalls and 800 unique lanterns. I have been to one and was blown away by the colourful spectacle it provided. I was also entranced by the magical sight of numerous animal lanterns, and various other shapes hanging from tree branches, or suspended on poles and overhead wires.


Due to the amount of waste generated by the event, (paper from the lanterns, food wrappings etc) the long-term sustainability of the festival has been an issue in recent years. The last two events have banned plastic bags and strongly encouraged sponsors to offer an alternative to branded plastic ‘giveaways’ and no longer printed festival programmes.

Ceidrik Heward

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