Columbus, OH: Ohio Chinese Lantern Festival

And now we come to the reason my mom was so keen to go to Columbus while I was home: she wanted to see the Chinese Lantern Festival being held at the State Fairgrounds, and she knew that I was the only family member (except for maybe my aunt) who would willingly go with her (though we ended up taking along my brother and Marcus too). I was intrigued, because it looked very similar to the Chinese Lantern Festival held at Chiswick House every year, which I have always wanted to visit, but never had on account of the prices being so high (I think around 20 quid).


At $15, this festival wasn’t all that much cheaper, but going with my mother meant she paid for it, so I didn’t have to (god, I’m cheap), and a performance was included with the ticket price. We arrived right when the festival opened, at 5:30, and headed straight out to see the lanterns before the performance, which was due to start at 6:30.


It wasn’t very crowded when we arrived, which was nice, though I think the lanterns were probably spread out enough that it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway if it had been busier. I realised pretty quickly that although the lack of crowds was a definite plus, I was probably losing out in atmosphere compared to Chiswick House. Chiswick House has lovely gardens, and unfortunately, the Ohio State Fairgrounds are just not the most pleasant surroundings for an event like this. Thanks to all the asphalt, I had the impression of walking through a giant parking lot the entire time (though I did like the map of Ohio on the ground, where I could try to stand in my hometown).


The lanterns themselves were pretty cool, and there were more of them than there appeared to be when we first stepped outside (the path wound around a few times), which is a good thing, because it initially looked disappointing. Not to be rude, but the English on some of the signs was so odd that I sort of wondered if it was deliberate, to play off the whole “Engrish” meme thing. Take this slightly spectacular run-on sentence: “There is a long running folk belief that blowing out the white puffball of seeds that the flowers turns into will grant you one wish as well as others use it as a reminder to use intelligence in dealing with every kind of situation.”  I could just be being horrible and cynical though, and they could have actually been written by people for whom English wasn’t their first language, in which case, ignore me.


My favourite lantern there was undoubtedly the giant cabbage, apparently included because cabbage is a very popular vegetable in China (I’m paraphrasing slightly, but that was more or less what the sign said). There was also a slightly incongruous Christmas scene (incongruous because most of the other lanterns were of Chinese animals and flowers and things), where I learned the wonderful fact that Santa is called “Sheng Dan Lao Ren” in Mandarin, which translates to “Christmas Old Man.”


I also really liked the series of archways depicting each animal in Chinese astrology, with facts about the supposed temperament of people born under each sign written on the underside of each arch. I’m an Ox, and though I guess I am stubborn, easily driven into a rage when annoyed, and patience is indeed not my virtue, I’m certainly not tranquil, relaxed, or dexterous (plus some of those things seem like contradictions. How is someone tranquil but also impatient?). I mean, all astrology is a load of crap, but I think I fit more of the traits of a Virgo than an Ox, if we’re comparing Western and Chinese astrology. The arches were still fun though!


I also liked the tent full of facts about how the lanterns were made, mainly because it was slightly warmer than outside (it was cold that night, even with a warm coat on (my brother foolishly chose to wear a hoodie despite us all telling him to bring a warmer jacket, and he ended up running inside way before the rest of us)), but also because I had a soft spot for Nian, the lion monster. Look at the poor thing being taunted with a carrot on a stick! I felt awful for him (even though he apparently eats people).


We eventually all gladly made our way back into the main hall, which was heated and had bathrooms. There were stalls in here selling a mix of carnival and extremely Americanised Chinese food (like egg rolls), which was overpriced even by carnival standards (if it wasn’t for the price, and the two hour car trip ahead of me, I might have given in to the lure of the funnel cakes), and a few Chinese craftsmen were selling their wares (I liked the cat painting, but not enough to pay $40 for it. Unlike the chipmunk painting in the last post, which I would definitely spend $40 on). We were about 15 minutes early for the performance, but we decided to go get seats anyway, which was smart because the seating area filled up quickly after we got there.


This is where the festival got quite irritating. There were apparently special VIP tickets available for purchase, which included access to the VIP seating area (the first few rows of bleachers). We were sitting directly behind it, and the picture above shows how full the VIP area got (i.e. not very). The annoying thing was that there wasn’t enough seating for everyone else, thus, many elderly people who arrived after the performance started were forced to stand (I was trapped in the middle of the row, so I couldn’t do much about offering my seat), and people in wheelchairs had to sit quite far back next to the bleachers, meaning they probably couldn’t see very much at all. It seems to me that the right thing to do would have been to offer access to the “VIP area” to some of the people less able to stand, instead of making them stare at rows of empty seats.


The performances themselves were fine – I enjoyed the acrobats and the quick-change mask performer, though I did get an unfortunate laughing fit during one of the dance performances, not helped by the fact that I could feel my brother shaking with laughter on the bench next to me – but the music was WAY WAY too loud. You’d think the sound guy would have figured it out from the way half the audience were covering their ears, but nope, he carried on blasting it out, so we all left with headaches and ringing ears.


Though I did like the actual lantern aspect of the Lantern Festival, it was too cold to really linger and enjoy them (though that is just a side-effect of being in Ohio), and the performance had such obnoxiously loud music that it was hard to truly enjoy that as well. I also thought the whole VIP thing was frankly ridiculous, especially because the event was so overpriced as it was (we had to pay for parking too, which I think was something like $10).  It was something to see once and get it out of my system, because now I won’t have to waste the money seeing it at Chiswick House, but I certainly wouldn’t go back. 2.5/5.


  1. Vivid, a perfect dose of self-aware cynicism, and, as always, funny. I loved this long passage:

    “Not to be rude, but the English on some of the signs was so odd that I sort of wondered if it was deliberate, to play off the whole “Engrish” meme thing. Take this slightly spectacular run-on sentence: “There is a long running folk belief that blowing out the white puffball of seeds that the flowers turns into will grant you one wish as well as others use it as a reminder to use intelligence in dealing with every kind of situation.” I could just be being horrible and cynical though, and they could have actually been written by people for whom English wasn’t their first language, in which case, ignore me.”

    So great!

    1. As usual, you’re too kind! I was worried I was being kind of horrible in saying that, but some of them were seriously just weird. There was another one that said “The birds here are all outlined in an abstract way which makes the lantern group a visual treat for you.” It reminds me of those Japanese gummies I used to buy just for the stupid stuff written on the bags, like “enjoy the taste of the soft mountain breeze as you have fun with these gummies.”

  2. That looks like a massive sensory overload. I think I would have lasted only a couple of minutes. Like your perspective on it.

    1. The lanterns weren’t too bad because they were outside and spread apart, but the music accompanying the performance was just awful. Not the music itself, but the extreme volume at which it was played. There were only about ten rows of bleachers, and this guy had it turned up to a level that would have been loud for a stadium!

  3. I lived in Columbus for many years and never had the chance to see this. It sounds like by reading your post I got all of the positive things (pictures of beautiful lanterns without the annoying and cold things!

    1. I’m not sure if this is a new event, or if it’s been going on for a while, because this was the first year I’ve heard about it, but I got the impression they hold similar events in cities all over America. Glad you enjoyed the lantern pics – wish I’d just looked at pictures and skipped it myself!

  4. I do like the lanterns – they had some at Edinburgh Zoo before Christmas, which seems an odd place for them. I’d like to have gone but couldn’t get tickets for the time we wanted so we went to the ice sculptures instead. I think I’d have shared your irritation with all aspects of the performance you went to. And I refuse to believe that you could ever be cynical, oh no! (Ok, that last bit’s not really true.)

    1. I’ve seen lantern displays at zoos advertised before, and I swear Taronga Zoo in Sydney had some kind of lanterns up when we visited, even though it was during the day. Zoos also all seem to do Christmas lights, presumably to try to get people in during the winter – my mother kept trying to get me to see the ones at Akron Zoo, but I have this memory of going there as a kid when all the animals were still kept in those horrible bare cages with bars – I’m sure it’s not still like that, but I’m not overly keen on going back.

  5. Wow, that sign-wording thing is just bizarre, but I love the “Christmas Old Man” translation. But now, I can’t help hearing it in Orson Welles’ voice. (If you’ve never seen The Third Man, he tacks “old man” onto almost every line.)
    I love the idea of Chinese Astrology, though I’m sure it’s a load of hooey. But it’s always cracked me up that my sister is a Pig (snicker, snicker). (I can be shitty about that because I’m a Snake.) I can’t say I’ve ever known an Ox before. I like the idea that dexterity is one of the key traits – seems rather un-oxlike.
    And that VIP seating deal is exceedingly lousy. I can’t believe they thought that was a good way to go. Shame on them – totally deserving of their low score.

    1. I have still never seen The Third Man, despite going to Vienna years ago and seeing signs for Third Man tours everywhere without knowing what it was at the time. I looked it up as soon as I got home, but have never been motivated to watch it. If I want to watch something from the ’40s, it’s hard to persuade myself to watch an Orson Welles film when I could instead be staring at the physical perfection that is Cary Grant.
      My brother is a Monkey I think, and Marcus is a Rat (we were born the same year, but his birthday is in February before Chinese New Year). Most of the Ox traits don’t seem particularly Ox-like, unless maybe Chinese oxen are different? I wish I was a Snake though – snakes are way cooler than oxen!

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