A paper lantern is a lantern made of thin, brightly colored paper. Paper lanterns come in various shapes and sizes, as well as various methods of construction. In their simplest form, they are simply a paper bag with a candle placed inside, although more complicated lanterns consist of a collapsible bamboo or metal frame of hoops covered with tough paper.
Paper lanterns are likely derived from earlier lanterns that used other types of translucent material like silk, horn, or animal skin. Papermarking technology originated from China from at least AD 105 during the Eastern Han Dynasty, but it is unknown exactly when paper became used for lanterns. Poems about paper lanterns start to appear in Chinese history at around the 6th century.  Paper lanterns were common by the time of the Tang Dynasty (AD 690–705), and it was during this period that the first annual lantern festival was established.
There are three general types of paper lanterns, they are:
- Hanging lantern - the basic type of paper lantern used for illumination. They are meant to be carried, hung, or mounted on stands.
- Sky lantern - a small hot air balloon made of paper, with an opening at the bottom where a small fire is suspended. Also known as "flying lanterns", "sky candles" or "fire balloons."
- Water lantern - paper lanterns that float on the surface of water.
China & Taiwan
A chochin lantern from Japan
In the Philippines, a traditional paper lantern is the parol, which is regarded an iconic symbol of Filipino Christmas. Traditionally constructed using bamboo and Japanese paper, modern parols have been made using other materials such as plastic, metal, and capiz shells. Its most-common form is a five-pointed star, although it can come in various shapes and sizes.
The parol is a traditional part of the Las Posadas Christmas procession during the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines. It was initially rectangular or oblong in shape but eventually came to be made in various shapes. It became standardized to a five-pointed star (symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem) during the American colonial period.
During the Yi Pengfestival of Thailand, some people also decorate their houses, gardens, and temples with khom fai (Thai: โคมไฟ), intricately shaped paper lanterns which take on different forms. Khom thue (Thai: โคมถือ) are lanterns which are carried around hanging from a stick, khom khwaen (Thai: โคมแขวน) are the hanging lanterns, and khom pariwat (Thai: โคมปริวรรต), which are placed at temples and which revolve due to the heat of the candle inside. The most elaborate Yi Peng celebrations can be seen in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the former Lanna kingdom, where now both Loi Krathong and Yi Peng are celebrated at the same time resulting in lights floating on the waters, lights hanging from trees/buildings or standing on walls, and lights floating in the sky. The tradition of Yi Peng was also adopted by certain parts of Laos during the 16th century.
Thousands of sky lanterns called khom loi (Thai: โคมลอย) are also released annually during the Yi Peng festival. However, this is a relatively new addition to the festival, only dating back to the first decade of the 21st century as part of tourism development.
Traditional Vesak lanterns during Vesak in Sri Lanka
Placing candles or tea lights in a succession of small paper bags (known as luminarias or farolitos) is a common Christmas tradition in New Mexico. The tradition originated from the parol paper lanterns of the Philippines brought over to the Americas during the colonial period.
Luminarias during Christmas in Albuquerque, New Mexico
In Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other German-speaking and some Dutch-speaking parts of Europe there is a tradition of the Sankt-Martins-Umzug (Sint-Maarten in Dutch), during which children parade with paper lanterns that are traditionally handmade.
High-wattage paper lanterns are commonly used in lighting for motion picture productions. Commonly referred to as "China balls", they provide soft, edgeless light to a scene.
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