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There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get from walking around at night surrounded by twinkling lights. Whether it’s flaming tiki torches, candles, or paper lanterns, the magical ambiance that lights provide can often make your evening memorable. Bask in the glow of these 13 lantern and light festivals around the world and make your vacation a little brighter.
Hội An Lantern Festival, Vietnam
On the 14th day of each lunar month (often during or right before a full moon), all the lights in the city of Hội An are turned off and floating lanterns are placed on the Thu Bồn River during the monthly lantern festival. This time of month is considered sacred in Vietnam since the population is predominantly Buddhist, and it’s believed Buddha was born and achieved enlightenment during a full moon. This monthly festival has roots dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when Japanese immigrants came to Hội An and hung lanterns outside their homes for good luck. Locals repeated the custom, and around 1998, the lanterns were incorporated into the city’s full moon festivals.
During the celebration, Hội An glows from lanterns floating on the river, hanging outside homes, or lining streets and sidewalks. Home and business lights are required to be off by 8 p.m. to let the lanterns take over, and no cars or bikes are allowed in the ancient town section of the city so that people can walk around and enjoy the view. During the monthly festival, locals and visitors can also enjoy live music and poetry readings, play board games, eat street food, and pay their respects at Buddhist shrines overflowing with offerings to ancestors.
Diwali, India’s five-day holiday celebrated each October or November, is also known as the Festival of Lights. The festival is named after one of the ways people celebrate: lighting clay oil lamps called deepa or diya and placing them in rows (avali) outside their homes. The lamps represent the ability to fight off spiritual darkness with our own inner light.
Diwali dates back at least 2,500 years, and its mention and significance appear in several religious texts. However, the origin story behind the celebration varies across India. Northern India celebrates Diwali to honor King Rama’s defeat of Ravana and his return to Ayodhya; southern India honors Lord Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura; and western India honors Lord Vishnu’s triumph over the demon King Bali. Today, Indians of various faiths, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, celebrate Diwali by decorating their homes with the deepa lamps, creating intricate designs out of sand on the floor, attending feasts, lighting fireworks, and bringing gifts to friends and relatives.
Spring Lantern Festival, China
China’s Spring Lantern Festival happens at the end of the Lunar New Year, on the 15th day of the first lunar month (which always falls during the first full moon in February or March). Festival traditions began during the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago, but the origin of the celebration is debated. The Spring Lantern Festival is believed to have been created by Emperor Ming to honor Buddhist traditions, or, a group of townspeople, who lit red lanterns and set off firecrackers to trick the mythical Jade Emperor into believing their village was already on fire in order to prevent him from attempting to burn it.
Today, Spring Lantern Festival celebrations across China include lighting elaborate lantern displays, releasing floating lanterns into the sky, answering riddles tied to lanterns, eating tangyuan (glutinous rice balls often filled with crushed peanuts or black sesame seeds), lighting fireworks, and attending lion and dragon dances.
Umi no Hi Lantern Festival, Japan
Umi no Hi, which means “Day of the Sea” and is also referred to as Marine Day, is a relatively new holiday in Japan. It’s a day meant to honor the ocean and everything it provides for the country. Umi no Hi first became a public holiday in 1996, though it was designated Marine Commemoration Day in 1941 to honor Emperor Meiji’s return from an expedition at sea in 1876. The Umi no Hi Lantern Festival is held annually on the third Monday of July. To celebrate the holiday, people across Japan clean up beaches, toss balls of purifying dried mud into the water, decorate ships with lights, and set up 50,000 paper lanterns along the beach overlooking Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo.
RiSE Festival, Mojave Desert, Nevada, U.S.
About 25 miles south of Las Vegas on the Jean Dry Lake Bed in the Mojave Desert, the night sky is lit up with glowing, orange paper lanterns for two days every October. The spectacle of thousands of lights floating over the desert is for the annual RiSE Festival, an event that started in 2014. Participants enjoy live music and food, then write messages of hope and renewal onto their lanterns before releasing them. RiSE staff operate adhering to a philosophy of leaving the event space better than they found it. The lanterns are biodegradable and any remains are collected by the event organizers after their release. RiSE festivals also happen in Dubai and Australia.
Festival of Lights, Germany
More than 100 pieces of art light up landmarks throughout Berlin during the annual Festival of Lights every fall. The festival first started in October 2004. Over two million people attend the festival each year to stroll around Berlin and see iconic landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral, Victory Column, and Berlin Central Station illuminated not only by spotlights, but also light displays featuring 3D animations. The artists behind the attractions are both local and international, and there’s also a photo contest held every year. The festival is so popular that the organizers now work with other cities around the world to create their own light events.
Vivid Sydney, Australia
Starting in 2009, the early summer Vivid Sydney festival has drawn millions to the southern hemisphere’s largest light, music, and ideas event. The entire Sydney harbor and other popular locations throughout downtown Sydney come to life with 3D artwork moving along to music, colorful laser displays, concerts, and TED Talk-style workshops. The centerpiece of the event is the Sydney Opera House, which kicks off the festival by slowly being covered by brilliant colors and moving artwork. The best way to see everything is to grab a map of the locations and walk to every spot — in any order — to take in the artwork, and check for event tickets in advance. Light installations begin every night at 6 p.m.
Las Fallas, Spain
Las Fallas, a spring festival held annually each March in the city of Valencia, marks the windup to the Feast of Saint Joseph. The celebration includes live music, costumes, and fireworks, but the main event is based on fire. Gigantic, cartoonish sculptures fill the streets during the first few days of the festival, and the celebration culminates in a massive bonfire in which the sculptures are burned. Las Fallas’ origins are pagan, with some Catholic influence.
The festival is believed to have started with carpenters, who would work by the light of large, wooden torches throughout the winter. Once spring came and the days lengthened, they’d gather the torches and burn them in the street. Carpenters would compete for the biggest bonfire, and they began to construct elaborate shapes and characters out of the wood before burning it. The first recorded document that refers to Las Fallas was written in 1740, and by that time, the festival was already well-known.
Fête des Lumières, France
Though the current version of Fête des Lumières, with buildings lit up by bright lights and interactive art, has only been running for about 30 years in the city of Lyon, the origins of the festival date back hundreds. The celebration began in 1643, when the city built a statue dedicated to the Virgin Mary in a plea to save citizens from the plague. About 200 years later in 1852, bad weather threatened the statue — but then the sky miraculously cleared. The residents of Lyon thanked the Virgin Mary for saving the statue by putting candles in their windows, a tradition that has since manifested into a four-day festival of light and color all over the city.
Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival, Japan
The city of Yonezawa, Japan, sits near a mountainous region and is known for getting heavy snowfall. But residents don’t let it go to waste. Each year during the second weekend of February, locals frolic in the snow during the Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival, held on the grounds of the Yonezawa Shrine. During the festival, the community builds 300 snow lanterns and 1,000 more snow lamps — lighting them all with candles. The effect is an ethereal wintertime glow, punctuated by food stands and paper lantern displays. The celebration is named after Uesugi Yozan, a ruler from the late 1700s known for bringing about a better life for the residents. The festival includes a snow sculpture of his castle.
Yi Peng and Loi Krathong, Thailand
Yi Peng (or Yee Peng) and Loi Krathong festivals fall on a full moon during the 12th lunar month in the Thai calendar, which is usually in November. Yi Peng was once celebrated at the end of monsoon season, but now that the two festivals are celebrated together, the meaning is more rooted in Brahmin customs. Both festivals are known for paper lantern releases, candles along the roads, parades, and floating flower displays. Yi Peng and Loi Krathong are both celebrated across Thailand, but the city of Chiang Mai has the biggest and best displays. While paper lanterns are the centerpiece of Yi Peng, Loi Krathong celebrations are best-known for the decorated rafts released into water.
Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii Festival, Hawaii, U.S.
Beginning on Memorial Day 1999, residents and visitors have gone to the beach in Honolulu to honor fallen soldiers at the Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii Festival. Her Holiness Shinso Ito, the head priest and spiritual leader of the Buddhist community of Shinnyo-en, started the annual festival after taking inspiration from women visiting and maintaining Civil War memorials and graves on the mainland. The event includes a prayer ceremony; a food and water offering; a guided meditation; a blessing of the lanterns; and a lantern release preceded by a bell. Participants are also able to write well-wishes on the lanterns before releasing them. More than 40,000 people take part in the activities every year.
Amsterdam Light Festival, The Netherlands
Every winter, from late December to early January, the canals in Amsterdam are lit up with glowing art during the Amsterdam Light Festival. The event began in 2012, organized by a canal company owner, a designer, and an event organizer. Hundreds of artists submit ideas to an open call for artwork on display at the festival, and only 30 are selected each year. The winning pieces are installed around the canal ring in the city. The best way to see them is by boat on the canals, but there’s also an extensive walking tour that goes past every installation.