Apr 3, 2013

Lantern Festivals: Illuminated Inspiration

There are few things I enjoy more than a good festival. Between the vast selection of one-of-a-kind displays, food vendors, upbeat entertainment, and diversity of people, festivals provide photographers with endless subjects and lively moments to capture on camera. Lately, I’ve been inspired by images shot at various lantern festivals across that country.

If you’re unfamiliar with these spectacular events, they were inspired by an age-old Lantern Festival held each year in China. The original Chinese Lantern Festival is a festival celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar that marks the end of the Chinese New Year Celebrations. Occurring on the first full moon night in the Chinese lunar year, the festival symbolizes the awakening of Spring. People in China traditionally celebrate with loved ones by appreciating the full moon, lighting up lanterns, solving riddles on lanterns, setting off fireworks, and eating rice glue balls.

The Lantern Festival originated from the Eastern Han Dynasty when Buddhism was first being introduced to China. It is part of Buddhist tradition for monks to light up lanterns in honor of Buddha on January 15th. Therefore, Emperors of the Han Dynasty who wanted to promote the religion ordered people to light up lanterns like the monks do in palaces and temples across the region to demonstrate their respect for Buddha. Civilians were also asked to string up lanterns on that night, giving birth to the Lantern Festival. During the Song Dynasty, it was custom for people to write riddles on paper strips and attach them to the lanterns for others to figure out. The subjects of the riddles were traditionally songs, poems, or historical events. Fireworks were added in the Qing Dynasty, making the festival a record-breaking grand occasion.

Over the past 2,000 years, the Lantern Festival has grown to include more customs and activities. The lanterns have become increasingly more elaborate over the years. Many lanterns depict aspects of Chinese history and culture, incorporating themes from Chinese legends and images that reflect traditional values. Lanterns often represent animals from the Chinese zodiac and heroic figures. Some lantern designs are purely aesthetic rather than symbolic, and the diversity of lanterns is astounding. The popularity and aesthetic delight of the Lantern Festival in China has sparked countless other lantern festivals around the world, including the United States.

One of the well-known lantern festivals in the States that I’ve been inspired by pictures from is the Holiday Lantern Festival at the Global Winter Wonderland inside the Great America Theme Park in Freemont, California held from November through January each year. The festival boasted eco-friendly lantern recreations of some of the world’s most beloved architectural achievements including the State of Liberty, the UK London Bridge, and Egyptian Pyramid. Some of this past year's displays were 100 feet wide, towering into the air more than 50 feet high. Festival goers also enjoyed captivating entertainment including martial art performances, acrobats, and laser lights shows, sight-seeing attractions at the Global Village, and classic holiday characters like Santa Claus and Rudolph.

Another worthwhile event with fascinating photographs is the Chinese Lantern Festival at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. This unconventional festival held from November through January featured 22 hypnotizing lantern displays in and around the fairground lagoon including The Temple of Heaven, Statue of Liberty, animated creatures, and a large Blossoming Lotus. Other visual delights included a collection of architecture, fabric flora and fauna including flamingos, dinosaurs, pandas, and even a dragon made from 15,000 porcelain dishes! Visitors had the pleasure of browsing Old World handcrafts, watching artists weave palm leaves into detailed animals, paint with liquid sugar, and create creature confections. Not to even mention the spread of delicious Chinese and Western food!

Last month, visitors enjoyed all the buzz of a Chinese village around the Lunar New Year at the annual Chinese American Museum Lantern Festival in Los Angeles. Held at the Chinese American Museum, the festival featured historic New Year celebrations with everything from musical performances to vibrant lantern displays. The festival offered an assortment of unique attractions including a glow-in-the-dark show, acrobats and lion dancers, and hands on crafts like origami, kite-building, and lantern-making.

Looking for an opportunity to take your own lantern festival photos? Mark your calendar for the 2013 San Diego Lantern Festival taking place on July 19-21 in the Little Saigon San Diego Commercial and Cultural District. The festival typically draws between 10,000-15,000 visitors- bringing together businesses, neighbors, students and community groups. The festival features a fantastic array of cultural activities to be submersed in. From delicious food, street performers, eccentric vendors, and carnival rides, there’s something for all ages to enjoy. At night, you can look forward to a display of more than 6,000 lanterns lighting up the sky. Don't forget your camera!

Martha Fox a guest contributor from Carolina Lanterns, a South Carolina based lighting company specializing in custom-made gas and electric lanterns.

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