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Brighten up a dark December with these dazzling Chinese lantern displays

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(Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - Elaborate light displays have long been an essential part of the holiday season, but instead of decorating Christmas trees, a Staten Island festival is illuminating Chinese lanterns this winter instead.

Despite living in Brooklyn for six years, I’ve been to Staten Island just a handful of times, and whenever I do head to the forgotten borough, it always seems like I’m stepping into a world far away from the New York City I know. Walking into the NYC Winter Lantern Festival only multiplied that feeling, transporting me to somewhere else entirely within the grounds of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. The sky was already pitch black at the festival’s 5 p.m. start time, giving me very little sense of my surroundings. As I followed the path to the entrance, a distant rainbow glow assured me that I was headed the right way.

While the location choice added to the transformative nature of the experience, it was the size, color, and level of detail of the lanterns that created a feeling of total immersion in the exhibit. Over 1,000 lanterns, some reaching more than 30 feet in height, lit up eight acres of the cultural center. The displays were bigger and brighter than I had imagined they would be, and every piece that I passed was deserving of a closer look to fully appreciate the artistry that went into it.

The guided path was broken up into around 30 smaller sections, each with a specific theme. In the dinosaur section, a Tyrannosaurus rex and pterodactyls were brought to life in vivid hues. Elsewhere, you could walk directly into the mouth of an alligator to find yourself in a multicolored tunnel. And upon nearing the exit, a massive wooly mammoth looked down at you from atop a glacier.

Lantern festivals are said to date back to the Eastern Han Dynasty in 25 AD, though the origins of the tradition are rooted more in legend than in fact.

One such story begins with a beautiful bird that flew down to Earth from the heavens. The crane belonged to the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven. Ignorant of the bird’s celestial connection and believing it to be a ferocious beast, a hunter killed the animal to eliminate any potential for danger, which greatly angered the Jade Emperor.

Motivated by his fury over the death of the bird, the Jade Emperor decided to burn down the village. But before he could carry out his act of destruction, his daughter warned the innocent people about what was to come, enabling them to devise a plan to save themselves. A wise old man suggested that they light lanterns and set off firecrackers to trick the Jade Emperor into believing that the village was already afire. It worked, and the tradition continued every year to commemorate the village’s success.

Other accounts are not quite as exciting, with one suggesting that the lanterns began as a practical method of protecting candles from wind. Records show that monks were some of the earliest to use paper lanterns, incorporating them into their worship of Buddha; a particularly devout emperor then ordered the imperial palace and the general population to adopt this rite. It’s also been tied to the birthday of Tianguan, the Taoist god of good fortune who appreciated the revelry. Yet another story traces the festival to celebrations intended to appease Taiyi, a god who controlled 16 dragons with the ability to cause natural disasters.

Whether it began with the killing of a heavenly bird or a need to keep candles lit on a breezy day, the tradition of paper lanterns remained an important part of Chinese celebrations and spread to those of neighboring cultures as well. The first large-scale festival is believed to have occurred during the reign of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty. Texts document the festival’s existence continuing into the Tang Dynasty, describing it as “a spectacular lamp-lighting ceremony.” It also became known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, as young women were allowed to stroll freely, giving them the opportunity to meet men and fall in love.

Now, the Lantern Festival is held annually on the 15th day of the first month on the lunar calendar, which typically falls in February or March. In addition to the lanterns, festivities also include stilt performances, dragon dancing, riddle solving, and the eating of rice balls called yuanxiao.

Haokun Liu and Conglin Miao, the producers of the NYC Winter Lantern Festival, wanted to bring the classic Chinese custom to New York to further enhance the diverse cultural offerings of the city.

Held for the first time in 2018, the festival calls upon artisans in China to design and build the lanterns. Once the lanterns are ready, they’re shipped to the city in 40-foot containers and assembled by a team of Chinese artists. Each lantern gets its structure from steel frames; they’re then covered with silk cloth and additional details are painted onto the cloth. LED lights within the interior frame provide the source of illumination.

The NEWYORKEE event is a true celebration of Chinese culture and a signature event for the China National Tourist Office. While most guests will spend the bulk of their time marveling over the lanterns, they’re also treated to acrobatic performances throughout the course of the night and invited to enjoy a food court serving international cuisine with an Asian flair. The Snug Harbor Cultural Center makes for an appropriate location, as the grounds are home to the New York Chinese Scholar's Garden, a recreation of Ming Dynasty gardens and one of the few authentic classical outdoor Chinese gardens in the United States.

For anyone looking to avoid the crowds of Rockefeller Center or those seeking a slightly unconventional holiday activity, the NYC Winter Lantern Festival is an ideal way to spend an evening. The festival runs until Jan. 12, so bundle up in your hat and gloves and prepare to enter a fantasy wonderland of dragons, dinosaurs, and wooly mammoths.