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Lantern Festival . Chinese families climax their New Year celebration with a feast of color and light

By visiting China in the winter, we were able to be part of a celebration that in-season tourists never see. This was the traditional Lantern Festival, the culmination of China's lunar New Year festivities, dating back to the Han Dynasty, which began about 200 BC. The New Year celebration, which may vary from late January to late February, according to the lunar calendar, is the most important family holiday in China. It is a time not only for feasts and gifts, but also for clearing debts and buying new clothes. The Lantern Festival begins on the 10th day and culminates on the 15th day of the New Year with special feasts, visiting, parades, fireworks, decorated streets, hotels, shopping areas -- and handmade lanterns of all shapes and sizes.

Celebrations for this new year, designated the Year of the Tiger, began Feb. 9; the Lantern Festival will be held Feb. 18-23. Our visit, last March, coincided with the start of the Year of the Ox.

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The young CITS (China International Travel Service) guides were visibly excited about the evening's fireworks as we arrived at Xian's Xingging Park, where the palace of the Tang Dynasty once stood.

We were ushered into a pavilion for our early-evening meal. Inside we shivered in an enormous unheated room with exterior walls created by inserting glass doors during winter months.

Cooks and waitresses bustled about, serving one of our best meals in China. The hot-soup course was relished, as were the cups of hot drinks cradled in both hands for warmth. After dinner we were invited to the upper floor, where a single stove offered little respite from the cold.

At dusk people began to arrive at the park and to wander along the wide paths that circle the centrally located lake. Across the water stood two tiled-roof pavilions with characteristic red-lacquered pillars reflecting in the lake.

We readily joined the walkers in the park and strolled six or eight abreast at a leisurely pace feeling completely safe. China prides itself on its success in checking street crime.

When the cold forced us back into the warm motor coach and the pavilion, we continued to watch the quietly gathering crowd. In front of us were families with their children, dressed like dolls in bright embroidered clothing, clutching a small lantern by their sides. Doting grandparents tagged along. Teens and young adults walked in pairs and in groups. There was a definite feeling of anticipation in the air, something akin to July 4 in the United States.

Our American tour group was less than enthusiastic about the two-hour wait. We'd started out early for the 19-mile ride over dusty roads to see the renowned terra-cotta warriors at the tomb of a Qin Dynasty emperor; we had stopped on the way at the Banpo Museum, a Neolithic community dating to 6000 BC; and on the way back at Hua Hot Springs, where Chiang Kai-shek was captured in 1936 and released shortly after. We'd seen a lot of China's history that day and were tired and cold.

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Once the fireworks began against the backdrop of a full moon, our enthusiasm picked up. We could then appreciate the efforts of the CITS in placing us at the perfect vantage point, since the well-spaced pavilions across the lake were the origination points for most of the fireworks.

One surprise in the evening's display was that in this country where fireworks originated, the fireworks are much less grandiose than in the US. Here, they are still used ceremoniously to scare away ``evil spirits,'' and most often take the form of rotating comet tails set off in quick succession. There's a lot of crackling noise, but not the big booms with huge star bursts Americans enjoy.

The next day was the 14th day of the New Year and a holiday, so we found crowds of people in the streets. In this north-central province, some rural Chinese had never before seen white-skinned people, so we drew our own crowd of spectators, especially apple-cheeked children who stared at us and marveled at wrapped sticks of chewing gum we gave them. One baby even cried on seeing our white faces.

Over at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, it was obligatory to visit Buddha during this holiday. The younger Chinese who have grown up during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) have no fixed religious beliefs and giggle about their elders' religion, but many of them eagerly accompany parents and grandparents to the shrines on holy days. In a Shanghai temple, one young mother with a baby in her arms walked in front of a line of golden Buddhas, carefully explaining each one.

Inside the walled garden of the huge pagoda were many elderly making their pilgrimage, some women with canes hobbling on feet that had been bound according to custom before the 1920s, when foot-binding was outlawed.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda (there is also a Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian) is seven stories high and was built to house the manuscripts of Xuanzang, the monk who introduced Buddhism to China after an 18-year pilgrimage to India. Here Xuanzang spent some 20 years translating holy books from Sanskrit to Chinese.

A pilgrimage to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda includes a climb of the 306 steps to the top. A legend promises that anyone who completes the climb will live to the age of 100. There were lots of climbers on this holiday, with the younger helping the older.

The following day found us in Peking at the Great Wall Hotel. From our 14th-floor window we had a commanding view of the city, which is quite flat and devoid of tall buildings.

In the evening light we could see fireworks bursting in every quandrant of the sky, as each district of the city held its own celebration.

The scene was almost like showers of falling stars low on the horizon instead of high in a March sky.

Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.

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