Paper lanterns are beautiful decorative lanterns originally made of rice or silk paper, covering a light source. As a light source and as decoration, paper lanterns have been popular for 2000 years. They were first made in China during the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 200 BCE to roughly 200 CE. They also became widely popular in Japan under the reign of Prince Shotoku in the 7th century CE, who made tremendous strides toward incorporating Chinese culture and invention into Japanese life.
Due to the thin covering used to make paper lanterns, when lit they are very beautiful, especially when they are colored. They may also carry designs, paintings or screens that show up brilliantly under a light source. The only color not traditionally used in making paper lanterns is white, the color of mourning in many Asian cultures. Though white paper lanterns glow luminously, they are not considered celebratory.
Paper lanterns exhibit various shapes and sizes. A common design is the ball or globe design, which holds its spherical shape by being stretched over strips of bamboo. It is very unusual today to see paper lanterns that hold candles, unless the paper used is flame resistant. It’s simply too easy for them to catch on fire, otherwise. In most cases, the paper lantern has an insert for light bulbs. The can be either battery powered, or connected on a string that has a central plug. It’s not uncommon for paper lanterns to be used as light shades in Asian homes. In fact a few varieties are standing lamps with a paper shade.
Some paper lanterns are tiny. A recent trend is to use spherical paper coverings over Christmas lights to decorate a room. Other paper lanterns are quite large. Some of the round types can have a diameter larger than two feet (61 cm). You can also find cube or rectangular designs, many with lovely painted decorations.
Paper lanterns have remained popular due to their use in important Asian festivals. For example, the Chinese Lantern Festival has been celebrated since the 5th century CE. Streets and buildings are gaily directed with paper lanterns, some unusually large. Celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar (usually February or March on the Western calendar), the Chinese Lantern Festival also features parades, and people participating in or watching the parades may hold small paper lanterns.
Another form of paper lanterns, often called luminaries, can be easily made from brown paper lunch bags. These are frequently popular during Halloween. Jack-o-lantern style designs can be cut out of one side of the bag, and they’re often lit with small candles or tea lights. Still, for safety, it’s better to use a small electric light than a candle to avoid possible fires.
Both luminaries and Asian paper lanterns can be made from scratch or purchased at candle stores, and on various Internet sites. Do look for those that feature flame resistant covering. Consider a string of them, or a few large ones for your next outdoor celebration.