Celebrating the Light

April 22nd, 2009  |  Published in Hot off the press

The Pender Islands’ Lantern Festival –
Westworld, Daytripper


At a quarter to five at the end of December, the light is fast disappearing at North Pender Island’s small community park on Magic Lake. Children and adults are gathering along the road and the shore while Pender Islands’ own RCMP vehicle tries valiantly to stop optimistic motorists from turning right, into the teeming crowds.

We’re here with visiting family: nieces, nephew, brother and sister-in-law and mother. I point out a corner and tell them to wait there at the end if they wander off during the festivities. “Oh no, we’ll stay with you,” they all resound, but we know they won’t; someone always disappears. It’s that kind of magic – you see something, it draws you nearer and before you know it, you’re snuggling in with strangers. 

Already there’s a huge crowd here, with more surging toward us, flashlight beams intersecting and muted voices calling out, trying to identify friends. We move toward the small tent to pick up our sparklers and I give one to each eager child.

“Can I light it now?” “It’s better to wait until the end. It’s prettier when everyone does it together.”

Of course they want to light a sparkler now AND at the end, but there aren’t enough. As usual, the number of people has been under estimated. There must be five hundred children and adults here, and that’s pretty impressive for a Gulf Island with a permanent resident population of two thousand. I make a mental note to bring sparklers next year.

The six of us huddle to discuss the best viewing point. We want to be able to watch the procession that is about to move toward us from the nearby baseball park, and we want to be able to see the kayak ballet, and the shadow play at the lake’s edge at the other end of the park, where the magic lizard comes out of the lake and dances, and then there’s the events in the middle: fire-eating, juggling, puppets, and who knows what else! Emily Carr once wrote that a true work of art is never finished, and I think the Lantern Festival organizers feel that way too. Every year something new is added to the tradition.

Ravel’s Bolero is issuing from the sound system, its repetitive notes a signal that the lantern procession is starting to move towards us. We strain to watch the surreal parade of waving lights, monster sized puppets and mile high stilt walkers. 

Candlelit tissue paper lanterns, some so large they obscure their bearers, flicker and pulse as they advance. Gigantic apparitions stalk regally among the lanterns; they are the stilt walkers, looking for all the world like players in a Greek tragedy.

These ten foot figures representing the four elements of earth, fire, water and air can be quite scary. The bearded and ominous Father Time also looms high above the crowd. A few of the younger children whimper and are picked up. We can hear the soothing voices of the parents explaining it’s only make believe.

The tots perk up, though, when they see the baby bouncing along with the lanterns, perched high in the throne being proudly carried by his father. The tiny ambassador represents the New Year and he loves his work. King for an hour, he gurgles and waves energetic small fists.         

Even after four years, we’re awed as we watch these flimsy, flickering objects of beauty: a big turtle, a jelly fish, a 3-D heart, almost as if we are participating in an ancient, spiritual rite. In reality, it is, with a history that goes back to China in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-221 AD). The ancient Chinese believed that celestial spirits could be seen on the first full moon of the lunar calendar. They lit torches to better help them see their ancestors and departed loved ones, and later their illuminations changed to lanterns. Later still, fireworks – the ultimate lights – were added.

The tradition continues and like many good Chinese ideas, has spread to other countries. China continues to hold its festival on the 15th day of the first month of the traditional lunar calendar while others, especially in the west, have invented good reasons for holding it at any time.

Jill Moran, one of the Lantern Festival organizers, says this festival is held on New Years Eve because it creates a family event at a time when partying and celebration frequently leave out the children, and also because it becomes a celebration of the return of light at the darkest time of the year.
She remembers the Lantern Festival’s second year, when nothing particular seemed to be happening for families in Victoria on New Years, and suddenly Pender was “hot”, as word got out about the festival. “There was suddenly this great tourist boom is the middle of winter; Pender tourism got a great boost.”

This family tradition started four years ago when an artistic and talented couple, Jackie Dandeneau and David
Ferney, formed “Three on a Tree Production Society” and contacted Julie
Flatt, the dynamic founder of the successful Esquimalt Lantern Festival. She ferried over to dispense advice and suggestions and was delighted with the energy and creativity she found on Pender.
“It was an amazing turnout for my workshop. Everyone made incredible lanterns, and had fabulous ideas. I was impressed.”

Although the Dandeneau’s have since left the Penders for California, they have returned yearly since, to witness their lasting gift to the community.

Preparation for the event begins early in December, when a stilt workshop is held for all skill levels, followed by a production shop for volunteers to paint staves, create lanterns, and build and paint the stilts. As soon as Christmas is over, the workshop opens from dawn to dusk, as people drop in to offer suggestions, and to work, create and chat. 

When Bolero stops playing, it’s eerily silent, but the mellow sounds announcing the start of the kayak ballet rush in to fill the void and soon we are on the grass watching the brightly lit vessels flick together and apart, like courting dragonflies. The performances follow one another resolutely, with no
M.C. and the absence of the usual jovial, loud voice somehow adds to the bewitched quality of the event.

Finally, fireworks erupt and voices beneath me chime: “Can we now? Can we now?” I light my sparkler and reach down to light the childrens’. They are eager to be among the first to pass on the light. The magical hour is over. In the light of the sparklers we do a head count to see who is missing. Mother.

“Grandma always disappears,” complains one small voice, but just then we recognize we’re being summoned. “Over here!” The voice commands. The missing has been found. “This woman’s one of your
neighbours,” my mother announces, “and she has invited us all for hot chocolate and goodies.”

“Cookies?” asks our previous complainer, hopefully. “Chocolate chip?” “Absolutely!” affirms the neighbour we are about to meet. We swarm toward her. 

Sidebar 1: the holiday season on the Penders

The Lantern Festival is the culmination of a series of events that mark the festive season. 

The Pender Lions Club – CARE Tree – seen by passengers on the B.C. Ferries, this huge Christmas tree sits high on a high at Port Washington. Every beginning of December, the tree is officially dedicated, the tree lights erupt, and a carol sing follows.

The Santa Claus ship, now in its 53rd year, visits Saturna, the Penders,
Mayne, Galiano and Salt Spring Islands on the second Saturday of December. A Belllingham Lions project originating out of Bellingham during a time when island children might never see any other Santa, this nautical one brings toys and candies, and the Lions Club on every island organizes something special. On The
Penders, the Pender Highlanders pipe in the ship, on Mayne, a parade cavalcade takes Santa to the Agricultural Hall where everyone is treated to hot drinks and a warm space. On Galiano a roaring bonfire and hot chocolate keeps everyone warm, and on Salt Spring, Santa travels to the local school and then to the hospital to delight children mostly over the age of sixty.

The Christmas Eve ferry serenade. Picture a motley crew standing around the ferry terminal at Penders’ Otter Bay. A makeshift conductor stands on the waiting room stairs, and hands out sheets of carols. The ferry arrives, gives an extra toot to say “hi” and its astonished passengers are greeted with impromptu Christmas carols. Some musicians take spoons to click together, others hum on a doctored comb, while serious musicians with horns, cellos, drums, recorders and guitars, all
do their thing, sans rehearsals. The last ferry from both Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen receive this special Christmas Eve greeting. After the chaos and cacophony, the triumphant revelers gather at the CARE tree for carols and a blessing by A Pender pastor.

Sidebar 2: Other Lantern Festivals:

Victoria Chinatown Lions 48th Lantern Festival. This is held at Central Junior High School on the third Saturday in October. and could be one of the oldest lantern festivals on the island. A fund raiser and multi cultural celebration, it features an auction, arts and crafts displays and entertainment as well as lantern creations. For information call: 381-7799 (website:

Esquimalt Lantern Festival. Their 7th festival will be on the Saturday of the Swiftsure weekend. Held on the walkway to West Bay Marina, the popular festival features open air dancing until midnight.

Tofino Lantern Festival. This celebration is toward the end of August or beginning of September at Tofino Botanical Gardens, and is sponsored by the Raincoast Education Society. Weeks prior to the event, visitors and residents gather at the Rain Forest Interpretive Centre to create candle lanterns to carry during the procession. Lanterns are placed around the gardens and beside the rainforest boardwalk. It’s a night of light and art, with local musicians, performers, food and drink. “This year we had three hundred and fifty adult
partcipants pus children”, one of the organizers, George Patterson, points out.

Luminara Victoria. Saturday, July 26 – Over ten thousand people came out to the 2002 event, which is celebrated at St. Ann’s Academy and Beacon Hill Park. Celebrants dress in costume, listen to live music, light their lanterns at dusk and revel in the community spirit. For information call 388-4728.

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