Almost Fearless

Paper Lanterns: Hopes, Dreams And Burning Trees

The images are iconic. Paper Lantern festivals, a gathering of hope, the lanterns carrying wishes into the night sky. Originally used as signals 2000 years ago, lanterns float into the darkness in festivals all over the world, a celebration of culture and tradition.  For some areas, like Pingxi in Taiwan, the festivals have grown, and paper lanterns draw tourism and support the local economy. Disney even got into the act; Rapunzel watched the lanterns drift away, carrying her memory and dreams for a new life.

They forgot to show Rapunzel’s lantern starting a forest fire and burning her kingdom to the ground.

That’s harsh, I know. Lantern festivals are a beautiful symbol of humanity and of a collective wish for hope for the future. I’ve always wanted to go to one myself, until I lived through this summer.

This summer, the entire Western United States was on fire.

This summer, I watched while flames destroyed National Parks, homes and towns. I  drove past burning grass on the side of a freeway as my children watched plumes of smoke flow off the mountains. We watched as our favorite ski area was evacuated, followed the cameras as smoke billowed over the ridge, and waited overnight to see if the wind would carry the flames to the buildings themselves.

We live in the Pacific Northwest, on “the wet side” of the mountains. But this summer, the smoke from the BC Wildfires, the Montana wildfires and the Oregon wildfires blew into my town. Outdoor events were cancelled. Schools closed every window and door. Ash and cinder fell from the sky and coated everything. The smoke blocked out the sun.

After this summer, I’ve come to regard anything that might set the world on fire with a bit more respect, a bit more caution.

Where Do Paper Lanterns Come Into This?

A paper lantern is literally an open flame, launched into the sky to float, and land, wherever it may. Depending on where and how they are produced, lanterns are made of a combination of rice or oiled paper, string and a bamboo or wire base which holds a burning candle or paraffin fuel cell. Lanterns can rise 3,000 feet (or higher in cool conditions) and be carried downwind “a vast distance”, according to Wishlantern, a company selling paper lanterns for personal celebrations. They suggest safety measures, including launching on a windless night, keeping a fire extinguisher and water nearby and not launching near plants, woodlands, crops, buildings, airports or overhead objects.


So, where should one launch a lantern then?

Aware of the risks, some festivals are promoting their safety and environmental stewardship. The Lanternfest, a paper lantern release party that happens in 6 cities around the US, sends a team to the expected landing area with fire extinguishers and water as well as a cleanup crew. While I want to applaud them, because yes, they are trying to mitigate the risk, I can’t get over the idea that maybe it would be better to celebrate in a way that didn’t require a preemptive fire crew?

And what if the wind changes? Or a lantern drifts farther than expected? Or the “fireproof” lantern itself sparks into flames?

Things catch on fire. Houses catch fire, cell towers light up, forests blaze. There are so many reports of fires that many countries including Argentina, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Spain and Germany have made paper lanterns illegal. In the United States, 29 states and multiple cities have banned paper lanterns, according to Wildfire Today, and the National Association of State Fire Marshals recommends they be illegal in every state. Even parts of China have made releasing paper lanterns illegal.

What About Lantern Festivals Worldwide?

Here’s where the hot air goes out of my lantern, so to speak, and I struggle with my very own argument.

There’s a huge difference between sending off paper lanterns at your child’s birthday party (please, just don’t) and celebrating 2000 years of culture and tradition. The lanterns are part of an identity for many people around the world. Paper Lantern Festivals celebrate the final day of the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, and the Mid-Autumn Festival. In Thailand, Lanna floated during the Yi Ping Festival honor the Buddha. Lanterns released during the Moon Lantern Festival in Vietnam pay respect to elders and follow Buddhist tradition. For towns like Pingxi and so many others, paper lanterns and Lantern Festivals draw tourism and support the local economy.

While I think the lanterns are beautiful and uplifting, I didn’t grow up celebrating with any kind of lantern festival. My view, shaped and sharpened by stories of evacuations and weeks spent inside to avoid hazardous air this summer, says that as mesmerizing as the floating lanterns are, they aren’t worth the risk. But I don’t have childhood memories of setting a lantern free with my family, or a close connection to the religions or cultures behind it. To someone who does, would banning the release of paper lanterns be akin to asking for a change in a religious celebration? Would it place fracture lines in communities that have celebrated with paper lanterns for literally thousands of years?

Is a worldwide celebration of good luck, good fortune and good wishes worth the very real risk of forest fires?

Is there a meaningful way to celebrate the with paper lanterns without launching dreams into the sky?

I can’t pretend to answer all these questions, but it is a discussion worth having. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with Lantern Festivals in the comments.



Beth Swanson

Beth Swanson is a freelance writer from North Bend, WA. She strives to live a bold, adventurous life with a hidden health condition. She writes about her life, travels, parenting mistakes and misadventures on her blog, Follow her on twitter @crazymessyamaze.

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