There are many different beliefs about the origin of the Lantern Festival. But one thing for sure is that it had something to do with celebrating and cultivating positive relationship between people, families, nature and the higher beings they believed were responsible for bringing/returning the light each year.
One legend tells us that it was a time to worship Taiyi, the God of Heaven in ancient times. The belief was that the God of Heaven controlled the destiny of the human world. He had sixteen dragons at his beck and call and he decided when to inflict drought, storms, famine or pestilence upon human beings. Beginning with Qinshihuang, the first emperor to unite the country, all the emperors ordered splendid ceremonies each year. The emperor would ask Taiyi to bring favorable weather and good health to him and his people. Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty directed special attention to this event. In 104 BC, he proclaimed it as one of the most important celebrations and the ceremony would last throughout the night. They clean it all up in the morning.
Another legend associates the Lantern Festival with Taoism. Tianguan 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 during which they pray for good fortune.
Yet another common legend dealing with the origins of the Lantern Festival speaks of a beautiful bird that flew down to earth from heaven, which was hunted and killed by some villagers. This angered the Jade Emperor in Heaven because the bird was his favorite one. Therefore, he planned a storm of fire to destroy the village on the 15th lunar day. The Jade Emperor's daughter heard of this plan, and warned the villagers of her father’s plan to destroy their village. The village was in turmoil because nobody knew how should they escape their imminent destruction.
However, a wise man from another village suggested that every family should hang red lanterns around their houses, set up bonfires on the streets, and explode firecrackers on the 14th, 15th, and 16th lunar days. This would give the village the appearance of being on fire to the Jade Emperor. On the 15th lunar day, troops sent down from heaven whose mission was to destroy the village saw that the village was already ablaze, and returned to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor. Satisfied, the Jade Emperor decided not to burn down the village. From that day on, people celebrate the anniversary on the 15th lunar day every year by carrying red lanterns on the streets and exploding firecrackers and fireworks.
There are many stories on how this festival was created. One other story is about a maid. In the Han Dynasty, Mr. Eastern was a favorite advisor of the emperor. One winter day, he went to the garden and heard a little girl crying and getting ready to jump into a well to commit suicide. Mr. Eastern stopped her and asked why. She said she was a maid in the emperor's palace and her name was Yuan-Xiao.
She never had the chance to meet her family after she started worked at the palace. She missed them so much every 12th lunar month. If she couldn't have the chance to show her filial piety in this life, she would rather die. Mr. Eastern promised her to find a way so she could reunion with her family. Mr. Eastern left the palace and set up a fortune-telling stall on the street and disguised himself as a fortuneteller. Because of his reputation, many people asked for their fortunes.
But every one got the same prediction - a severe fire accident on the 15th lunar day. The rumor spread quickly. Everyone was worried about the future and asked Mr. Eastern for help. Mr. Eastern said, "On the 13th lunar day, the God of Fire will send a fairy lady in red to burn down the city. If you see a lady in red wearing green pants riding a black horse on that day, you should ask for her mercy." On that day, Yuan-Xiao pretended to be the red fairy lady. When people asked for her help, she said, "I'm the messenger of the God of Fire and came to check on the city and I'm going to set up fire on 15th. This is an order from Jade Emperor. He will watch from the heavens.
I will give you a copy of the imperial decree from the God of Fire. You should go to ask your emperor to find a way out." After she left, people went to the palace to show the emperor the decree which reads "The capital city is in trouble. Fire burns on the palace, and fire from Heaven burns all night long on the 15th." The emperor of Han Dynasty was very shocked. He called and asked Mr. Eastern for advice. After pondering for a while, Mr. Eastern said, "I heard that the God of Fire likes to eat Tang-Yuan (Sweet dumpling). Does Yuan-Xiao often cook Tang-Yuan for you? On the 15th lunar day, let Yuan-Xiao make Tang-Yuan.
Your Majesty will take charge of the worshipping ceremony and you will give an order to every house to prepare Tang-Yuan to worship the God of Fire at the same time. Also, deliver another order to ask every house in the city to hang red lantern and explode fire crackers. Lastly, everyone in the palace and people outside the city should carry their lanterns on the street to watch the lantern decoration and fireworks. If everything goes this way, the Jade Emperor would be deceived.
Then everyone can avoid the fire accident." The emperor happily followed the plan. Lanterns were everywhere in the capital city on the night of the 15th lunar day. People were walking on the street. Fire crackers kept making lots of noise. It looked like the entire city was on fire. Yuan-Xiao's parents went into the palace to watch the lantern decorations, and Yuan-Xiao made a big lantern and wrote her name on the lantern. They happily reunited together after her parents called her name. Everybody was safe during the night. The emperor of Han Dynasty had a new order that people should do the same thing every year. Since Yuan-Xiao cooked the best Tan-Yuan, people called the day Yuan-Xiao Festival.
Young people were chaperoned in the streets in hopes of finding love. Matchmakers acted busily in hopes of pairing couples. The brightest lanterns were symbolic of good luck and hope. As time has passed, the festival no longer has such implications.
Those who do not carry lanterns often enjoy watching informal lantern parades. In addition to eating tangyuan (simplified Chinese: 汤圆; traditional Chinese: 湯圓; pinyin: tāngyuán), another popular activity at this festival is guessing lantern riddles (which became part of the festival during the Tang Dynasty), which often contain messages of good fortune, family reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity and love.