In a large gathering, people are releasing lanterns iwhile remaining in a circle, giving that spot a very large illumination.

The Festivals of Light: Their History and Significance Across Countries

Festivals of Light celebrate the illumination brought to the world. 

There’s hardly a bad connotation to the word “light”. For example, people look to the sunrise to signal the beginning of a new day.

Different countries and cultures have their own festivals to celebrate light. It proves to be an enlightening way to showcase one’s history, heritage, and culture.

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (青森ねぶた祭り) – Japan

A nebuta float, depicting a story of a brave warrior fighting against monsters, is being pushed by people underneath, with the dancers on the side and people sitting on side to watch the performance.a
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This Japanese summer festival from Aomori, Aomori Prefecture, Japan lasts from August 2 to August 7.

Origin of Japan’s Festival of Light

The festival’s origin is unknown, though many believe its roots lie with China’s Tanabata Festival. Another belief states the festival is a combination of the Tanabata Festival and the cultural traditions of the Tsugaru region.

A popular legend, dating to the 800s, tells of General Sakanoue no Tamuramaro and his army creating gruesome creatures from cloth and bamboo to scare enemies away during battle. Hence, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri came to be.

Matsuri translates to “festival”.

Nebuta is a float of a brave warrior that’s carried through the center of the city.

Originally, they were lanterns made of paper, bamboo, and candles. It evolved with modernity in materials, shape, and design.

In the past, people in different towns made Nebuta from painted washi paper over bamboo frames. After the festival, the Nebuta was passed down to the next generations.

Today, it’s common for businesses and organizations to create them.

As the festival’s popularity grew, so did the size of the Nebuta.

Present Day

For the festival, businesses and organizations created 20 dynamic Nebutas, each based on either kabuki or mythical stories.

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese dance portrayed with songs, music, and dance and performed only by male actors. Their exaggerated gestures and body movements express emotions. Usually, these dances are based on historical plays, domestic dramas, and dance pieces.

The floats take close to a year to design and construct because of their large size.

Construction involved hundreds of lightbulbs being weaved throughout the float to illuminate the colors of the Nebutas. Once they’re built, the Nebutas are paraded through Aomori by human power.

The festival runs from August 2 to August 6 and ends during the day on August 7.

The Hanato are colorfully dressed Nebuta dancers. They, along with flute players and drummers, walk with the floats and perform. The Hanato jump and dance while shouting “Rassera! Rassera!”. Anyone dressed in Hanato clothing can participate in the festival.

On the night of August 7, the Nebutas are ferried around Aomori Bay and a fireworks display concludes Japan’s Festival of Light.

Guy Fawkes Night – United Kingdom

At night, a group of people are standing around a large bonfire, the flames reaching a great height.
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The History of Guy Fawkes

In 1570, when the pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, Catholicism was further suppressed under her reign. Devoted Catholics couldn’t legally celebrate mass or marry according to their rights.

Then, in 1603, when King James I took the throne, rumors spread about his and his family’s affiliation with Catholicism. He denied the rumors and condemned them as superstition.

The king continued the repressed policies of the previous monarch and, as a result, all Catholic priests left England.

English Catholics planned countless conspiracies against the king, but they all failed.

Guy Fawkes fought with Spain against protestant Dutch Reformers. Thomas Wintour took notice of Fawkes’ skills with explosives and introduced him to Robert Catesby, the leader of a group of influential Catholics.

The group planned to assassinate King James I and restore the Catholic monarch and leased a large cellar underneath the House of Lords.

Fawkes planned to use 36 barrels of gunpowder for this explosion and hid them in the cellar.

When the king opened parliament, it would set off a large explosion and leave a new Catholic monarch.

However, the group faced a betrayal and the guilty party led the authorities to the cellar. There, they found Fawkes guarding the explosives.

After being questioned and tortured, Fawkes named the other conspirators, and they were hung. Fawks escaped the traditional painful death by jumping off the scaffold and breaking his neck.

Bonfire Night

In January 1606, an Act of Parliament assigned November 5 as Guy Fawkes Day. This wasn’t a day to celebrate Guy Fawkes with bonfires but served as a warning for Catholics.

The tradition started with ringing church bells and bonfires after the plot was discovered.

On November 5, 1606, a representation of Guy Fawkes burned in a bonfire before a fireworks display.

Nursery Rhyme

The Festival of Light in the UK comes with a nursery rhyme about the day:

“Remember, Remember,

The Fifth of November,

The Gunpowder Treason and Plot.

I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.”

Chinese New Year

A very large gathering of people surround the floats in an area, watching the colourful firework go off into the night sky, spreading more light on their special day.
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China’s Festival of Light is on the first of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar and a day of stories and myths.

A popular story told on this day is about the mythical beast, Nian.

Nian ate livestock, crops, and people on the eve of the new year. Villages had to place food at their doors to prevent Nian from entering and causing destruction.

One day, a wise old man discovered Nian feared loud noises and the color red.

From then on, people placed red lanterns and scrolls down their windows and doors to prevent Nian from entering. They used crackling bamboo, later fireworks, to scare the beast away.

Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE)

Although there’s no official or exact record, the first recorded Chinese Festival of Light took place during the Shang Dynasty. It was a time fo sacrificial ceremonies to honor the gods and ancestors at the beginning of the year.

Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BCE)

The term nian, meaning “year”, first appeared in the Shou Dynasty.

During this time, it became a customary tradition to offer sacrifices to the gods and ancestors. Worshiping nature blessed the harvest at the beginning of the new year.

Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE)

During the Han Dynasty, the date of the festival was set to be the first day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Certain activities became popular, such as crackling bamboo (burning bamboo to make a loud crackling sound).

Win and Jin Dynasties (220 – 420)

After they worshipped their gods and ancestors, people began entertaining themselves.

Families gathered to clean their homes, have dinner and stay up late on New Year’s Eve.

Many traditions were popularized during this time, such as Shou Shi, where families and friends gathered during the time of change to the new.

Fireworks are another example.

The Tang, Song, and Quin Dynasties

Due to economic and cultural prosperity, there was an increase in the festival’s development.

Modern customs are similar to those of the past. For example, firecrackers, visiting relatives and friends, and eating dumplings are among the most important ones.

Additionally, entertaining activities arose, such as dragon and lion dances during the Temple Fair and lantern shows.

Chinese Lunar Calendar

The Chinese follow the lunar calendar as a religious and social guide.

It existed as early as 1600 BCE, evidently seen from oracle bones in astronomical records. Ying and Yang, the lunar phases, solstices, and equinoxes define the calendar.

The calendar changed according to which emperor led people and varied from one region to another.

With the Chinese lunar calendar came the Zodiac animals, the twelve signs that run along the sun’s path through the cosmos: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar.

Modern Celebrations

In 1912, the Chinese government abolished the Chinese New year and the lunar calendar. They adopted the Gregorian calendar, as many other countries did, with January 1 becoming the official New Year.

In 1949, Chinese New Year became the Spring Festival, a nationwide public holiday.

Following the Chinese New Year is the Shangyuan Festival, one of China’s many lantern festivals.


At night, buildings in Lyon, France are lit up with light of different colours to depict a story, artists showing the world their work through light.
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This Festival of Light is a four-day event in the eastern French city of Lyon.

History Of France’s Festival of Lights

In 1943, when the plague struck, the city of Lyon prayed to the Virgin Mary for protection.

It started with a somber procession to the Basilica of Fourviére on December 8, the Feast of Immaculate Conception. Villagers carried lit candles and gave offerings in the name of Mary, resulting in the day becoming dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The 1850s were times of social unrest, floods, and urban changes.

From this, there came a decision for a statue of the Virgin Mary. Floods delayed the progression of the statue’s unveiling on September 8. It was postponed until December 8, but unsuitable weather led to the ceremony being abandoned.

As the weather improved by nightfall, citizens began spontaneously lighting candles on their windowsills and balconies, which became a symbol of people coming together in solidarity.

In December 1999, December 8 became known as the Festival of Lights or Fête des Lumières.

Modern Celebrations

People from around the world come to Lyon, France to display their art in the form of light.

Houses continue to light candles and place them on their windowsills and balconies.

The city of Lyon lights up to commemorate its heritage and history and to represent the city’s renewed identity.

Las Fallas – València, Spain

A ninot is placed in the city of Valencia Spain, set on fire, and burning until it is close to nothing.
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Origin of Spain’s Festival of Light

The popular story surrounds Spanish carpenters in the 15th century.

During winters, carpenters used wooden poles to hold up their lamps. When spring approached and the days grew longer, there wasn’t a need for wooden poles.

To honor their patron saint, San José (Saint Joseph), they burned the wooden poles on March 9. This also marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

The second story comes from ancient traditions. People set fires to celebrate a change in seasons, equinoxes, and solstices.

The third story related to figures of persona non grata (Latin for “unwelcomed person”). These figures were hung from balconies and posts and then thrown into a fire.

Celebratory Festival Days

While Spain’s Festival of Light is between March 15 and 19, the excitement builds up to weeks before.

From March 1 to March 19, mascletà, a thunderous firecracker show, is held every day at 2PM. The ground shakes for about 10 minutes before the other festivals begin.

On March 15, 700 ninots (puppets/dolls) are shown around the city and the focus is on their creation and destruction.

In this tradition, one ninot is spared by popular vote, the ninot inductat (pardoned puppet). This ninot is placed in the local Fallas Museum and joins the other favored ones.

Loy Krathong – Thailand

Thai citizens are seen on the river bank, in simple attire, praying as their krathongs are floating away into the river. Each krathong is beautifully decorated.
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Of Brahmin origins, Loy Krathong is a national Thai holiday, Thailand‘s Festival of Light.

The day originated about 800 years ago in the era of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom. While the date varies because of the lunar calendar, its purpose remains the same: showing respect to the water spirits and Buddha.

History of Loy Krathong

King Ram Kampaeng of the Sukhothai Kingdom, a devoted Buddhist, wanted tribute paid to the water Goddess Phra Ma Kong Ka and Buddha for all they gave. His people paid tribute at the end of the Thai year.

During this time, people relied on agriculture.

Waterways and rainfall played a large part in their lives. Therefore, a day of gratitude was during a full moon after the monsoon season, when rivers and canals were at their fullest.

The Krathong

A Krathong is a small lotus-shaped boat made from banana leaves and decorated with flowers.

The legend behind the Krathong starts with one of King Ram Kampaeng’s consorts. She created the first Krathong to impress the king, which later led to the first day of celebration.

The king and his family were on a cruise down the river to watch the festival.

Nang Noppamas, his consort, made a small boat from banana leaves with a candle in the center. She placed it in the water and let it float away. The king was mesmerized by its beauty and declared the day to feature Krathongs.

With loy meaning “to float” in Thai, the day became known as Loy Krathong.

Setting a Krathong to float is a way of releasing negativity and bad luck. It’s filled with incense sticks and candles, and a silent wish or prayer is given before it’s placed in the water.

With a fingernail clipping or a strand of hair and a coin, the Krathong floats away in the river with a prayer or wish.

Yi Peng – Thailand

Thai people are gathered in one area, everyone releasing a lantern into the sky, filling the night sky with more than just the moon and stars giving light.
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Translated to “second full moon day”, this is a Sky Lantern Festival or Floating Lantern Festival that takes place on the 12th month of the lunar calendar.

Also of Brahmin origins, it’s associated with Thai Lanna culture and is celebrated throughout northern Thailand.

The story behind this day is about a bird carrying a candle around Buddha. To show his respect for the bird, Buddha blessed the bird with great joy in its next life.

In addition to gaining merit from Buddha, the day marks the end of the monsoon season and the beginning of the cool season.

With lanterns released into the air, bad luck and mistakes are released with it.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

In a large gathering, people are releasing lanterns iwhile remaining in a circle, giving that spot a very large illumination.
image source:

Not only does light mark the end of darkness, but it also illuminates culture and history.

Countries show their ways of celebrating their history and culture and even allow visitors to take part. It’s evident that each country aims to keep its heritage just as alive as its festivals.

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”


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