As Malaysians, we are not foreign to the term Chap Goh Meh. It is the direct translation of the Hokkien dialect, which means the 15th night of Chinese New Year. However, it is officially known as the Lantern Festival or Yuan Xiao Jie (元霄节).
The Lantern Festival is a time-honoured tradition that the Chinese people have practised for a long time. The festival dates back to ancient times when the ancestors celebrated the end of winter and the coming spring with sacrificial offerings to Gods.
On this night, you will see houses and temples decorated with red lanterns and bright lights to mark the end of the celebration. Families would gather around for a bowl of rice dumplings or tang yuan (汤圆).
How well do you actually know the reasons behind all these customs?
Here are some stories, beliefs that explain the association between the activities surrounding Chap Goh Meh or the Lantern Festival.
1. A Trick Played on the Jade Emporer
This story is probably one of the most popular stories for the Lantern Festival. The Jade Emperor was quite fond of cranes. However, one day some of the villagers killed one of the emperor’s favourite cranes. The Jade Emperor was so furious with this incident that he sent a troop to incinerate the village on the fifteenth lunar day.
The Jade Emperor's daughter took pity on the villagers and warned them of her father's plan. The villagers were scared and dismayed. A wise man from another village came out with the idea that every family should hang red lanterns around their houses, setting up bonfires on the streets and set firecrackers on the fourteenth and fifteenth day of the lunar days.
On the fifteenth lunar day, the heavenly troops, set to destroy the village, saw that the village was already ablaze, returned to heaven and reported to the Jade Emporer. The villagers quickly followed the advice of the wise man. Of course, this pleases the Jade Emporer. He immediately pulls back his troops.
So from that day forth, on every fifteenth day of the lunar year, red lanterns are lit, and firecrackers are set.
2. Tragedy Into Carnival
Around 202 BC-220 AD, a wise man had transformed a tragedy into a carnival in the city of Chang'an, the capital of ancient China in the Han Dynasty. One day, the wise man, named Dongfang, went to pick up plum blossom for the emperor. As Dongfang was picking the plum, he saw a maid crying and suicidal. The maid intends to jump into the well.
Dongfang immediately stopped her asked for her name. Her name is Yuanxiao. Yuanxiao was so sad that she hadn't seen her parents since entering the royal palace. She blamed herself for that.
Dongfang assured her that he would help her. Dongfang set up fortune-telling services outside the palace. He told everyone there would be a catastrophic fire on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
As we know, rumours spread quickly. People in Chang'an panicked and asked Dongfang for solutions. Dongfang told them that the God of Fire would send a fairy in a red dress on the thirteenth day of the lunar month, and the people should ask her for mercy.
The rumours even spread to the emperor! The empower seek advice from Dongfang. Dongfang said that the God of Fire loves glutinous rice balls.
"Don't you have a maid named Yuanxiao that makes delicious rice balls? Let her make the glutinous rice balls to worship the God of Fire. At the same time, put up the entire city with red lanterns and set off firecrackers to pretend the city is on fire," said Dongfang.
On the 15th day, Chang'an was crowded with people holding lanterns, and Yuanxiao was able to meet with her parents. The Chang'an city was 'safe' from the fire, and the emperor was delighted! The emperor ordered that on the 15th day of the lunar month, people should make glutinous rice balls and hang up lanterns to worship the God of Fire.
Because Yuanxiao was so good at making the glutinous rice balls, the people started to name the food after her and hence the day is known as Yuan Xiao Jie (元霄节).
3. A Birthday Celebrations
Tianguan (天官) is the Taoist god responsible for good fortune. His birthday falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month. It is said that Tianguan likes all types of entertainment. So followers prepare various kinds of activities to pray for good fortune.
4. A Buddhist Celebration
Emperor Hanmingdi (Han Dynasty (25–220)) was an advocate of Buddhism. Emperor Hanmingdi heard that some monks lit lanterns in their temples to show respect to Buddha on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
Therefore, the emperor ordered that all the temples, households, and royal palaces should light lanterns on that evening. This Buddhist custom gradually became a grand festival among the Chinese to this day.