The Many Varieties of Lanterns We Love

Given the importance of light, humans have found many creative ways to contain and present lights.  As one style of displaying light, lanterns have had a long and richly varied tradition throughout human history.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines a lantern as: “A lamp with a transparent case protecting the flame or electric bulb, and typically having a handle by which it may be carried or hung.” As the producing company for Magical Winter Lights, we wanted to share a look at a few of the many different types of lanterns found in modern times.


First, we will look at the most simple of lanterns, a small container built to hold a single light source. This kind of lantern was extremely useful for thousands of years of human history after the sun went down in the evening. As often happens with objects required for daily use, lantern designs appeared in both purely functional ways and artistic designs that focused on presentations with beautiful appearances.


An iconic example of lanterns designed to maximize utility is the handheld lanterns found in colonial America.   

picture of colonial lantern

Some lanterns that exemplify the intricate beauty that could be found in lantern design even in antiquity are represented by lanterns one could find in middle eastern palaces.

Arabian LanternA unique style of a lantern that falls among these simple forms is the jack-o-lantern, which appears often around Halloween every year. It is believed that Jack-o-lanterns first made their appearance in Ireland around the 19th century, where they were used to ward off evil spirits during a festival similar to Halloween when spirits were believed to be wandering the earth.

picture of a jack-o-lantern asian lantern

Lantern styles and development in Asia are some of the longest traditions in the world. When first made, bamboo frames covered with translucent paper formed the most basic versions. The paper surfaces allowed Asian artists to turn lanterns into beautiful art, a practice which has only expanded throughout the course of history in Asia. Today, new lighting sources and building materials have allowed the art to develop to grand creations, however, basic paper covered lanterns are still widely used across Asian countries.
Next, we consider several more specific and unique forms of lanterns that have developed, the first of which will be water lanterns. Water lanterns refer to a type of paper lantern that is set upon a small raft which can float on water, after which it is lit and released to float away. In Japan, these lanterns are used in a festival every year where they have floated down a river and said to guide the spirits of the dead to the afterlife. In modern times, water lanterns have taken a variety of shapes and are used in decoration all around the world. In Hawaii, traditional water lanterns are used in a memorial service for fallen WWII soldiers, and every year on Memorial Day thousands of lanterns float in Hawaii in honor of those who fought and died.

water lanterns

Flying lanterns are incredibly beautiful when they light the night sky in masses. This lantern design is attributed to have originated in China, and for that reason, they are often called Chinese Lanterns. Historians speculate that the Chinese experimented with these hot air balloon lanterns as early as the 3rd century A.D., where they were used as signaling devices for military purposes. While releasing these lanterns creates an undeniably beautiful sight, they are controversial because of the hazards of fire and environmental damage due to the remains of fallen lanterns. Nonetheless, thousands of these lanterns fill the night skies in festivals all over the world today, and events like The Lights Fest and the Lantern Festival take place around the country allowing individuals to join and witness the amazing sights.   

flying lanterns


China pioneered another major contribution to the world of lanterns by pushing the development of framed lanterns to a new level. Artisans became more and more creative with the shapes and sizes of lantern frames, creating designs replicating the shapes of plants, animals, and buildings. Similar to traditional lanterns, the frames were covered with colored papers and paints, and it soon became possible to create in lantern art nearly whatever the designers imagined. Advances in lantern making materials in modern times including metal framing, new silk, and fabric coverings, and electric lighting has options has only expanded the magnificent range beauty lantern artists can achieve. The city of Zigong, China, is credited with the development of lantern festivals (read more about Zigong here). While the festivals in Zigong and other parts of China are still considered to be premium displays worldwide, lantern art is growing popularity around the world. Japanese artist Yayoi Kasuma utilizes this art form in art installations such as At The End Of The Universe, an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 2016. People Generation, a cross cultural company, has an area of business dedicated to bringing world class lantern exhibitions to western audiences. PG provided high-quality lanterns for an exhibit called “Alice In Winterland” at Chill at The Queen Mary Resort in California. Lanterns were used in this exhibit to portray the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland complete with a Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit.People Generation also produces the premier lantern festival in the United States, Magical Winter Lights, which takes place during the holiday season in Houston, Texas. Backed by lantern artist teams flown in specially from Zigong to construct the exhibits, this lantern festival is unrivaled in its authentic presentation of the unique art form. A fun carnival and exciting acrobatic performances accompany the multi cultural lantern display. Every year, Magical Winter Lights attracts thousands from all over Houston to enjoy the larger-than-life lantern art.

kasuma lantern photo

alice lantern photo

magical winter lights castle entrance


We hope you enjoyed this brief overview of some of the many varieties of lanterns we love. Please check out some of our other posts you are interested in finding out any more about the lantern making process or learning more about Magical Winter Lights. Throughout the centuries, lanterns have brought light and joy to the world, and People Generation is glad to be part of carrying that tradition forward and making it even better.

dragon lantern photo