February is the month for love. In days gone by, people celebrated Valentine's Day by wearing the name of their beloved on their sleeve. Today, we exchange Valentine's Day cards, and flowers and chocolates are popular gifts. In Japan, the women give chocolate to men as a token of their affection, while the men have their turn on March 14th, known as "White Day."
Of course, things are a little different in China, where the Chinese New Year season is traditionally a time for families. Nonetheless, along with the banquets, family dinners, and other celebrations, couples find time for a little romance.
Falling on February 14th in 2014, the Lantern Festival marks the last day of the Chinese New Year season. Traditionally, the Lantern Festival is a day for lovers. In the past, it was the one day of the year when a woman could come out - chaperoned, of course! - and be seen by eligible single men. In the days when women's feet were bound, it was often the one time when she could appear in public with unbound feet. Of course, these restrictions no longer exist, but there is still a hint of romance in the air at the Lantern Festival celebrations.
Numerous theories surround the festival's origins. It's possible that it was originally meant to honor Buddha. Another story attributes its creation to a homesick palace maid named Yuanxiao. This maid told the Emperor that the God of Fire would set fire to the city unless he was appeased with a scene of burning. Accordingly, the Emperor ordered that firecrackers be set off and bright red lanterns hung throughout the streets. The ensuing noise and confusion allowed Yuanxiao to slip home unnoticed for a brief family reunion.
The traditional food for the Lantern Festival is Yuanxiao dumplings, named after the lonely palace maid of long ago. (Some versions of the story have her preparing stuffed dumplings for the God of Fire, as this was one of his favorite foods). Yuanxiao are made with sticky rice flour. They can be sweet or savory; filled with everything from sugar, walnuts, and dried tangerine peel to meat and vegetables.
If possible, you'll also want to visit Chinatown to enjoy the Lantern Day festivities. Traditionally, these include music, dancing, acrobats, and of course, the sight of brightly decorated lanterns everywhere. People play the Lantern Riddle game, trying to guess the answers to the mysterious riddles stuck on the lanterns. And of course, you'll want to snack on dumplings!
Yuanxiao Dumpling Recipe
Learn more about Chinese cuisine by signing up for my free bi-weekly About Chinese Cuisine newsletter