David and I were coming back from dinner on my electric bike Wednesday night and saw what appeared to be flames in the air. Balls of fire the size of a fist were floating upward in the dark skies. After a few moments of bewilderment, we determined the flames were in a balloon of some sort. We walked to the square to check it out and discovered the little fires were indeed at the base of colorful paper balloons. People were lighting them all over the square, holding them long enough to heat up and hopefully let them go to sail upward towards the heavens. We joined a small crowd and David, ever the fire lover, bought one of these paper lanterns and before I knew it, I was holding two top corners of our little hot air balloon. A little disc of some sort of flammable material is suspended by wires, a very simple design really, and after struggling for a while, the lady was able to light it. We held on for a minute or so, gathering a decent sized crowd in the meantime. The lady prodded us at some point and we let go. The lantern sailed into the air, easily clearing the bushes, garnering some kind applause. I clapped, too. David immediately bought 4 more lanterns to take home.
I did find myself wondering what happens to the fire lanterns after that. Did they go out and then fall to earth, or do they slowly descend onto someone's roof, still very much on fire? These things would never fly in the States, but for once, I felt glad to be able to witness such things taking place with no one panicking about the safety implications. A sky full of gliding paper lanterns filled with the soft glow of a flame. I found it quite beautiful.
Wednesday happened to be Lover's Day in China. As far as I can tell, it's very much like the modern manifestation of St. Valentine's Day in the sense that couples spend the evening together and exchange gifts, namely, large bouquets of flowers. I lived in Shanghai last year around this time, heard about the day, but saw little evidence of its celebration save for a few ads for deals on dinners for two at certain restaurants. In Jining though, in the square where everyone hangs out in the evenings, couples were out for all to see, snuggling up to one another, some with a giant teddy bear by their side. We decided the lanterns must be part of the Lover's Day traditions. I heard one explanation a few days later that seemed to support this theory. Supposedly, a couple is supposed to light the lantern together and send it up to the gods, hoping their love will be blessed and accepted by their parents. I like this story, although I did see a group of girls sending a fire balloon precariously up to its fate, so maybe people just like fire.
We rode back to the apartment with our lanterns in hand. Finding myself unprepared for a Chinese Valentine's Day and feeling somewhat inspired, I sorta combined the two customs.
I drew my own balloon-themed Valentine. But of course, once you draw one cutesy love doodle, you have to draw another...
I mean, what is cuter than frogs in love, really?