When the North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, the news came as a serious disappointment to the thousands of people hoping to attend the annual wintertime event.

Luckily, the festival has returned this year—and judging by the crowds so far, visitors from all over the state are feeling more festive and eager to witness the stunning, handcrafted lantern displays.

First launched in Cary in 2015, the festival, held at the town’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre, has become one of the Triangle’s most must-see holiday events. Each year, over 25 Chinese artists and performers from Tianyu Arts & Culture, Inc., come to North Carolina to spend a month hand-assembling the thousands of lanterns needed for the spectacular artworks that are then installed around the amphitheater.

The 2021 festival features 36 all-new displays, including interactive exhibits like light-up swings and a foot piano for kids to enjoy. And of course, the 18,000-pound, 21-foot-tall floating dragon—a festival highlight—is back to loom large on Symphony Lake.

While the festival has always brought out big numbers, this year’s event is seeing record attendance, with more than 56,000 tickets purchased in the first two weeks alone, per ABC11—over a 100 percent increase from 2019.

It’s easy to understand why. With tickets starting at just $11 (prices vary depending on age and attendance date) and including nightly acrobatic shows by Chinese performers in addition to the lantern displays, the festival makes for a satisfying, accessible experience.

Kids can have a blast playing on the rainbow-hued, donut-shaped swings and facing off against the giant lantern robot, while adults are sure to be drawn in by the festival’s gorgeous floral creations and relish a leisurely stroll through the mesmerizing, color-changing tunnel. Guests of all ages will appreciate the dozens of lit-up, moving animal displays placed throughout the space, from a giant peacock strutting its feathers to a row of “floating” turtles set up in a swimming formation.

And then, of course, there’s the dragon. Stretching 200 feet across Symphony Lake, the massive lantern is the well-deserved star of the festival. According to the amphitheater’s website, it took a 15-person crew as well as a crane to get the artwork installed on the lake.

The beauty of the festival creations is a testament to the hugely impressive efforts of the Chinese artists involved. Each of the over 2,500 lanterns used was created by hand (and exclusively for the event) with materials shipped to North Carolina from Zigong, the city long considered to be the lantern capital of China.

To make the lanterns, the artists designed the creations on silk fabric that was then stretched over steel frames and lit up with hundreds of LED lights.

The art of lantern-making is a tradition going back centuries, in China, having begun over 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty. The colorful lanterns are said to symbolize respect and good luck, and lantern festivals are held across the world to mark the annual Chinese New Year, which occurs on the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar.

While ancient lanterns largely had simple designs, modern ones are often ornate and embellished, as seen in the various displays throughout the Cary festival. The North Carolina town is one of only six American communities to host the Tianyu-made Chinese lantern festival this year; the others are Seattle, Little Rock, Oakland, Oklahoma City, and Orlando.

It’d be a must-see event any holiday season, but after such a long past few years, the 2021 festival feels extra special, offering a fully immersive, awe-inspiring experience attendees (like this reporter) won’t soon forget.

And couldn’t we all use a bit of extra luck going into the new year?

For a round-up of the best neighborhood holiday displays in the Triangle, read here. 

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