Lantern Festival: Art by Day, Magic by Night

June 28th, 2012

All I can say is WOW!!!  My mom and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon together last Friday – first by having lunch at Magpie’s, one of my favorite little restaurants in St. Charles, MO.  We then headed down to the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis to visit an exhibit that is only here for a limited time – “Lantern Festival:  Art by Day, Magic by Night.”

Now I had only seen television commercials for this exhibit and really did not know the story behind its origin or how it came to be in St. Louis.  And some friends of ours had been to see it a couple of times, but the pictures they showed us really did NOT do the exhibit justice.  When we pulled into the parking lot at the botanical garden, the Welcoming Dragon – stretching nearly half the length of a football field – was just the beginning of what was in store behind the gates of the garden!

I had heard that unlike some of the other exhibits that the garden has hosted, this is NOT a traveling exhibit.  This exhibit was custom-designed, and is the first-ever at a botanical garden in the United States!  The international exhibit offers visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view one of China’s most ancient traditions – and one rarely staged outside of Asia.  We couldn’t wait to see what else was in store!  With cameras in hand, we headed inside.

The botanical garden normally closes at 5:00 p.m. but for this amazing exhibit, they have special evening hours scheduled (check out for specific hours and prices. Also check out their facebook page for the latest information.).  The park was open from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. so we grabbed our maps and headed out.  The “Magic by Night” portion of the exhibit occurs when the lanterns are lit at 8:00 p.m. so our evening allowed plenty of time to see the lanterns and all their glory both in daylight and while they were lit.

Again, all I can say is WOW!!!  The lanterns were spectacular – and massive – and gorgeous – and I could go on and on!  Part of me honestly expected the walkways of the garden to be highlighted with the typical Chinese lantern – a small, round hanging paper lantern – that alone would certainly have been very pretty.  But these weren’t just any hanging lantern – they are what are called ‘elaborate sets’ – and are created from thousands of pieces to form massive works of art!

So as we began our stroll through the park, taking pictures and picking our jaws up off the ground, the mechanical side of my brain starts wondering how everything came together.  Even though there were small exhibits throughout the park showing the construction process, I wanted to know more – thank goodness for the Internet!

In order to construct the elaborate scenes (some multi-piece) on sight, a team of skilled craftsmen from Zigong in the western province of Sichuan spent two months residing at the Missouri Botanical Garden to build the 26 scenes from scratch.  The artisans work from reference drawings and the sets begin as large outlines on the ground.  The next step is placing and welding together steel rods to form the framework of each figure or lantern.  The framework is then draped with Chinese silk that secured to the frame edges with a gold trim. The specially treated silk is designed to withstand several months of outdoor display.  Facial expressions along with other fine details are hand-painted before the creations are lit from within or decorated with exterior lights to give them a brilliant evening glow.

But don’t think that silk is the only exterior material used on these lanterns.  Several scenes used creatively recycled materials along with silk accents.  One of my favorites was Qilin, a mythical hoofed creature – part dragon, part lion – that used tiny glass medicine bottles filled with colored water and then twined together.  Not only was this beautiful with the sun shining through but it was absolutely gorgeous when lit.

The other crowd favorite seemed to be the Porcelain Dragon set – a pair of giant dragons fighting over a pearl in the Garden’s reflecting pools.  This work-of-art was constructed using around 40,000 individual blue-and-white pieces of porcelain dishware (bowls, spoons, bottles, wine cups and more) that were then hand-tied with kit string using traditional hand tying techniques.  When lit at night, you could see smoke roll from their nostrils as their heads moved.

And from the elaborate, we go to the more simple, relaxing displays.  I overheard Mom telling my niece that her favorite was the Lotus Flower.  To the Chinese, the lotus symbolizes ultimate purity and perfection because it rises untainted and beautiful from the mud.  Hmmm – maybe Mom knew something that I didn’t!  The reflection of the lanterns in the water doubles the beauty of this display.

There are a total of 26 lanterns in the exhibit – each referencing a part of Chinese culture.  The Welcoming Dragon greeting visitors at the entrance brings good luck in the Chinese Zodiac’s Year of the Dragon.  The Heavenly Temple, measuring three-stories-tall, imitates the beauty and presence of the Beijing Heavenly Temple.  Other lantern sets tell Chinese legends in great detail.  And no Chinese exhibit can be complete with pandas – Panda’s Paradise – complete with black and white pandas hanging out among some bamboo shoots.

I also found it quite interesting that sustainability is VERY important at the Lantern Festival.  As indicated on the Missouri Botanical Garden web site, lighting for the Lantern Festival is powered by connecting to the electrical grid – this is done in order to prevent local air quality concerns with operating on-site diesel generators.  AND, 100% of the exhibit’s electrical usage is offset by wind energy credits donated by Ameren Missouri Pure Power.  The Garden is also collecting all food waste and disposable service – this will be taken to a commercial composting facility.  And check out Sassafras Café – the first restaurant to be certified “green” in the State of Missouri.

I could literally go on and on about this great exhibit.  I told Mom that it truly is worth the price of admission and I DO plan to go back – this time with Dan and to improve upon my pictures.  The festival is here for a limited 12-week engagement – it runs through August 19 – so you certainly don’t want to miss it.

If you were thinking of planning a little weekend getaway, this would be the perfect day trip from Harpole’s Heartland Lodge.  Enjoy breakfast at the lodge & then head south to St. Louis for the day.  These lanterns are a spectacular sight during the day as well so you certainly won’t be disappointed.  But if you are determined to see the lanterns lit – you can still plan a weekend at the lodge – enjoy the lodge activities one night and the 2012 Lantern Festival the other night.  Either way, what a perfect way to have a mini-vacation – enjoy the peace and quiet of the beautiful lodge setting while learning about the Chinese culture.

The hours and admission prices vary for this exhibit so be sure to check the web site at for further information.  Wear comfortable walking shoes and prepare for a sight like you’ve never seen before.  Don’t forget the camera (and maybe the tripod).  But hurry – the exhibit only runs through August 19.


Lori Biehl



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