NC Chinese Lantern Festival, 2020

This year, 2020, has been an unsettling year, burdened with more than its share of tragedy, leading up to a strange holiday season. As life got more constricted, large-scale gatherings fell by the wayside. Mid-autumn, our town announced that this year’s Chinese Lantern Festival, typically held during the shortest days of fall/winter in a large outdoor park, was reluctantly being canceled due to health and safety concerns. Bummer!  Another feel-good event fallen victim to the scourge of covid-19. 

For several previous years, winter evenings in our part of North Carolina had been brightened by the display of an abundance of LED-lit silk lanterns. The many lifelike or fanciful figures were variations on the traditional Chinese lanterns fabricated in a small Chinese city where the craft of lantern-making is centuries old. A Chicago-based affiliate helped organize and provide logistical support for American exhibits, which focussed more and more strongly on depictions of animals.

In late November, I finally got a welcome glimmer toward a pandemic-adapted “new normal.” After eight months of closures or “take-out-only books,” our regional library reopened. The spacious structure, open only a year or so when the pandemic upended life as we’d known it, had incorporated health screenings and stricter limits on the number of patrons at any given time in order to operate safely. The second or third day after the reopening, I ventured downtown to the library, passed the screening questions and the temperature check, and got my first “fix” of in-person perusal of both fiction and non-fiction titles. As I walked outdoors nearby, I noticed that a small open space (where the old library had been) had a collection of inflatable figures, being blown nearly off their moorings on this windy day—a very scaled down holiday display. It was a week or so before I had a reason to venture downtown again—to return some books.

Lo and behold, the flimsy figures in the open space had been replaced by a display of well-anchored, life-sized silk elephants, with a sign saying they were part of a diminished Chinese Lantern exhibit. I vowed to come back after dark to see them in their LED-infused glory. The display (one of seven, it turned out) had been positioned in a way that minimized the dangers of close contact. It was adorned with cautionary signs about social distancing, maximum numbers of people, and mask wearing. One weekday evening in December, my husband and I met a couple of local friends for a socially distanced ramble to see all of the animals—elephants, tigers, a rhino, red pandas, a bear and a jaguar, snakes, and eagles. 

My husband, who keeps up with local news more closely than I do but doesn’t always remember details, thought he’d seen that the figures were “on loan” from a zoo in the Midwest. Once we tracked down an appropriate reference, we found that earlier in the year they’d been part of an exhibit at the Cleveland Zoo, so hadn’t needed to make the lengthy trip from Zigong in order to enthrall North Carolina audiences.    

My hope is that the holiday season of 2021 will find the pandemic finally in our rear view mirror. Our town then may again be able to host a full (and pricier) version of the lantern festival. However, I think it’s heartening that even this year, though the lights may have been diminished temporarily, they haven’t been extinguished. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Happy (upcoming) Year of the Ox!

Elephant Lanterns

Tiger Lanterns

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