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23: The Feast Of Lanterns

A great Chinese festival is the Feast of Lanterns, one which is only second in importance to New Year's Day. Its name is not unfamiliar even to persons in England who have never visited China, and whose ideas about the country are limited to a confused jumble of pigtails, birds'-nest soup, and the _kotow_. Its advent may or may not be noticed by residents in China; though if they know the date on which it falls, we imagine that is about as much as is generally known by foreigners of the Feast of Lanterns.

This festival dates from the time of the Han dynasty, or, in round numbers, about two thousand years ago. Originally it was a ceremonial worship in the temple of the First Cause, and lasted from the 13th to the 16th of the first moon, bringing to a close on the latter date all the rejoicings, feastings, and visitings consequent upon the New Year. In those early days it had no claim to its present title, for lanterns were not used; pious supplicants performed their various acts of prayer and sacrifice by the light of the full round moon alone. It was not till some eight hundred years later that art came to the assistance of nature, and the custom was introduced of illuminating the streets with many a festoon of those gaudy paper lanterns, without which now no nocturnal fete is thought complete. Another three hundred years passed away without change, and then two more days were added to the duration of the carnival, making it six days in all. For this it was necessary to obtain the Imperial sanction, and such was ultimately granted to a man named Ch'ien, in consideration of an equivalent which, as history hints, might be very readily expressed in taels. The whole thing now lasts from the 13th of the moon, the day on which it is customary to light up for the first time, to the 18th inclusive, when all the fun and jollity is over and the serious business of life begins anew. The 15th is the great time, work of every kind being as entirely suspended as it is with us on Christmas Day. At night the candles are lighted in the lanterns, and crackers are fired in every direction. The streets are thronged with gaping crowds, and cut-purses make small fortunes with little or no trouble. There being no policemen in a Chinese mob, and as the cry of "stop thief" would meet with no response from the bystanders, a thief has simply to look out for some simple victim, snatch perhaps his pipe from his hand, or his pouch from his girdle, and elbow his way off as fast as he can go.

Plenty of lights and plenty of joss-stick would be enough of themselves to make up a festival for Chinamen; in the present instance there should be an extra abundance of both, though for reasons not generally known to uneducated natives. Ask a coolie why he lights candles and burns joss-stick at the Feast of Lanterns, and he will probably be unable to reply. The idea is that the spirits of one's ancestors choose this occasion to come back _dulces revisere natos_, and that in their honour the hearth should be somewhat more swept and garnished than usual. Therefore they consume bundle upon bundle of well-scented joss-stick, that the noses of the spirits may run no risk of being offended by mundane smells. Candles are lighted, that these disembodied beings may be able to see their way about; and their sense of the beautiful is consulted by a tasteful arrangement of the pretty lamps in which the dirty Chinese dips are concealed. Worship on this occasion is tolerably promiscuous; the Spirit of the Hearth generally comes in for his share, and Heaven and Earth are seldom left out in the cold. One very important part of the fun consists in eating largely of a kind of cake prepared especially for the occasion. Sugar, or some sweet mince-meat, is wrapped up in snow-white rice flour until about the size of a small hen's egg, only perfectly round, and these are eaten by hundreds in every household. Their shape is typical of a complete family gathering, for every Chinaman makes an effort to spend the Feast of Lanterns at home.

Under the mournful circumstances of the late Emperor's death, the 15th of the 1st Chinese moon was this year (1875) hardly distinguishable from any other day since the rod of empire passed from the hands of a boy to those of a baby. No festivities were possible; it was of course unlawful to hang lamps in any profusion, and all Chinamen have been prohibited by Imperial edict from wearing their best clothes. The utmost any one could do in the way of enjoyment was to gorge himself with the rice-flour balls above-mentioned, and look forward to gayer times when the days of mourning shall be over.