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In Asia and elsewhere around the world, sky lanterns have been traditionally made for centuries, to be launched for play or as part of long-established festivities. The name "sky lantern" is a translation of the Chinese name tiān dēng (天燈, 天灯). Sky lanterns have also been referred to as sky candles or fire balloons; the latter term, however, is also used to refer to balloon munitions used during World War II.
When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern, thus lowering its density and causing the lantern to rise into the air. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern sinks back to the ground.
- In Mainland China and Taiwan, sky lanterns are traditionally made from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame. The source of hot air may be a small candle or fuel cell composed of a waxy combustible material.
The general design is a thin paper shell, which may be from about 30 centimetres (12 in) to about 2 metres (6.6 ft) across, with an opening at the bottom. The opening is usually about 10 centimetres (3.9 in) to 30 centimetres (12 in) wide (even for the largest shells), and is surrounded by a stiff collar that serves to suspend the flame source and to keep it away from the walls.
- In Thailand sky lanterns are often traditionally made from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame. They may also be constructed from other lightweight papers. The source of hot air is usually a small candle or fuel cell composed of a waxy combustible material lit and which usually stays lit despite the surrounding air currents. The Thai name is khom loy. Many areas of Asia, however, do not permit sky lanterns because of widespread fire hazards, aviation risks as well as danger to livestock.
- In Brazil, Mexico, and possibly other Latin American countries, sky lanterns were traditionally made of several patches of thin translucent paper (locally called "silk paper"), in various bright colors, glued together to make a multicolored polyhedral shell. A design that was fairly common was two pyramids joined by the base (a bipyramid, such as the octahedron) sometimes with a cube or prism inserted in the middle. Only the smaller models had a full frame made of bamboo or thin wire; the slight overpressure of the hot air was sufficient to keep the larger ones inflated, and the frame was reduced to a wire loop around the bottom opening. The "candle" was usually a packet of paraffin or rosin tightly wrapped in cloth and bound with wire.
According to the sinologist and historian of science Joseph Needham, the Chinese experimented with small hot air balloons for signaling from as early as the 3rd century BCE, during the Warring States period. Traditionally, however, their invention is placed 5 centuries later and attributed to the sage and military strategist Zhuge Liang whose courtesy name was Kongming. He is said to have used a message written on a sky lantern to summon help on an occasion when he was surrounded by enemy troops. For this reason they are still known in China as Kongming lanterns (孔明燈, 孔明灯, kǒngmíng dēng). (However, some claim that the name actually comes from the lantern's resemblance to the hat Kongming is traditionally shown to be wearing.)
Usage in festivals
In ancient China, sky lanterns were strategically used in wars. However, later on, non-military applications were employed as they became popular with children at festivals. These lanterns were subsequently incorporated into festivals like the Chinese Mid-Autumn and Lantern Festivals.
The Lanna people of northern Thailand use "floating lanterns" (โคมลอย, khom loi) year round, for celebrations and other special occasions. One very important festival in which sky lanterns are used is the Lanna Yi Peng festival, which is held on a full moon of the 2nd month (ยี่เป็ง, Yi Peng) of the Lanna calendar (which coincides with Loi Krathong, the traditional festival on the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar). During the Yi Peng festival, a multitude of lanterns are launched into the air where they resemble large flocks of giant fluorescent jellyfish gracefully floating by through the sky. The most elaborate Yi Peng celebrations can be seen in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the former Lanna kingdom. The festival is meant as a time to obtain Buddhist merit (ทำบุญ, tham bun). In recent times, floating lanterns have become so popular with all Thai people that they have become integrated into the festival in the rest of country.
In addition, people will also decorate their houses, gardens and temples with intricately shaped paper lanterns (โคมไฟ, khom fai) of various forms. It is considered good luck to release a sky lantern, and many Thais believe they are symbolic of problems and worries floating away.
The lanterns classified into four types. “Khom Tew” is a small lantern that people use in religious ritual. It is made of a candle and colored paper. After the ceremony, it is for decoration at the temple. The second type is “Khom Kwan”, a hanging lantern. This lantern has many shapes e.g. star shape, basket shape. The purpose of Khom Kwan is to worship a statue of the Buddha and wishing for the prosperity. People will hang it on the shelf of Buddha’s statue or hang it at the temple. The third is “Khom Pat”. Khom Pat is made of mulberry paper. The shape of the lantern is similar to a cone with two layers. There is no external pattern, but inside there is the pattern that related to Buddhism. When the lantern is lit, the light will create a beautiful shadow on the cone’s surface. The last type is “Khom loi”, a floating lantern. There are various shapes of this lantern. The main structure is made of bamboo branch, cover by kite-making paper or mulberry paper. The lantern is launched by the heat of fire same as the balloon. Normally, the places to launch the lantern are the house or the temple. Nowadays, there are many places that are organized for the festival.
Portugal and Brazil
In Brazil and Portugal, sky lanterns (balão in Portuguese) were a traditional feature of the June holidays (Festas Juninas) at the end of June. It is claimed that custom was brought to Brazil from Portugal by colonists in the 16th century, and is still strong in Portugal, especially in Porto. The June holidays tradition also includes firecrackers and fireworks another Chinese invention; so it is conjectured that these elements may have been brought from China, by Portuguese explorers around the 1500. The design and customs of Brazilian sky lanterns are modified to suite their festivals.
Frei Bartolomeu de Gusmão, using a large scale version of these lanterns, was the first man to fly a Hot air balloon in August 8, 1709, in the hall of the Casa da Índia in Lisbon, Portugal, long before the Montgolfier brothers.
Brazilian sky lanterns were usually made by small groups of children and adolescents; but adults sometimes joined the effort, especially for the larger and most elaborate balloons. The launching of a large lantern, which could be one or two metres across, would usually require the cooperation of several people, to hold the balloon fully stretched until it was fully inflated.
A sky lantern may land with the flame still alight, making it a fire hazard. In typical designs, as long as the lantern stays upright the paper will not get hot enough to ignite, but if the balloon is tilted (say, by the wind or by hitting some object), it may catch fire while still in the air. All the paper will usually burn in a few seconds, but the flame source may remain lit until it hits the ground.
After the balloon lands, the leftover thin wire frame will rust away very slowly, remaining a hazard to animals that may swallow it. In 2009 British company Sky Orbs Chinese Lanterns developed lanterns with a bio-degradable fireproof rope in place of metal wire. Many other European manufacturers adopted similar designs. In 2012 the same company released a patented design with fireproof base following reports of fires caused by lanterns.
Sky lanterns have also been alleged to pose a danger to aircraft. A Bangkok Airways flight was cancelled after a paper lantern was found lodged in an engine at Chiang Mai International Airport.
On 1 July 2013 the 'largest fire ever' in the West Midlands of England, involving 100,000 tonnes of recycling material and causing an estimated six million pounds worth of damage, was started by a sky lantern which landed at a plastics recycling plant in Smethwick. Images of the lantern starting the fire were captured on CCTV. In response to the fire, Poundland decided to stop selling sky lanterns and recalled their entire stock on 6 July 2013.
The UK government decided not to ban sky lanterns, but in August 2014 the Trading Standards Institute, following discussions between government and industry, issued an industry code of practice to provide guidance for manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers of sky lanterns, covering their manufacture, and warnings and instructions that must be provided.
Despite their use for centuries, there has been growing concern by some about the potential danger of causing crop or building fires and even harming animals that may eat their remains. Despite the general lack of prevalence, some places have banned them for these reasons.
It is illegal to launch a sky lantern in most parts of Germany; where use is not illegal, as in Herford, it is necessary to obtain advance permission from local authorities. In Austria, it is illegal to produce, sell, import, or distribute them. In Argentina, Chile, and Colombia it is illegal to launch lanterns, as well as in Spain and Vietnam. In Brazil, launching lanterns is an environmental crime, punishable since 1998 by up to 3 years in jail.
Retail sale (but not possession and use) of sky lanterns that "rely on an open flame to heat the air inside the lantern" was banned in Australia on 1 February 2011.
Sky lanterns have also been banned in Kittitas County, Washington, due to fire concerns, from 20 June 2013. Also Riverside County, California banns these under Fire Code (Ordinance 787).
In Washington DC, sky lanterns, also known as fire balloons or fire parachutes, have been banned since 1892.
In Great Britain the use of sky lanterns is not illegal, but notification requirements by the Civil Aviation Authority are set out in CAP 736, and endangering an aircraft is punishable with up to 2 years imprisonment and a £5,000 fine.
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