This article is part of our Hungry Ghost Festival Family Guide. Sign up for our newsletter to receive our best activity, recipe and craft ideas before every Chinese holiday.
At the end of Ghost Month, or at the end of the Hungry Ghost Festival evening, it’s time to help the wandering spirits find their way home. People float paper lanterns on lakes and rivers or set them outside their homes to light a path back to the afterlife. When the lights burn out, it symbolizes that the spirits have found their way back.
Making your own floating lantern is a great thing to do for the Hungry Ghost Festival because, frankly, kids think they look really cool when they’re lit out on the water. It’s one of those activities that opens a natural pathway to discuss the holiday’s origins and traditions without being too heavy-handed.
Floating lanterns are typically made in the shape of a lotus flower to symbolize purity and redemption, and get set out on open bodies of water that carry the wandering spirits away. Lit lanterns really do look beautiful at night.
To make this floating lantern, you need a pair of scissors, a 10″ length of kitchen string, a coated paper plate or thin square of wood and two sheets of 20″ x 20″ tissue paper.
The tissue paper should be fairly sturdy, so that it can hold its shape. The kind they use at stores to wrap fragile items is a good weight. You can also use wax paper or parchment paper. You’ll use the paper plate or square of wood as the lantern’s floating base, so choose a material that won’t get easily water logged.
I’ve kept the instructions below simple, as a starting point for your own creativity. For instance, I’ve used plain off-white tissue paper that will throw off a nice warm glow. You could also use red or multi-colored paper for a different effect.
This project takes about half an hour and creates one lantern.
Start by gathering your materials. Cut the 20″ x 20″ tissue paper into 12 rectangular pieces measuring 6″ by 10″.
You build the lantern by creating four packages, each comprised of a leaf and two petals. The first step for each package is to create a leaf. Start by folding one sheet of paper in half lengthwise. Make sure to make a good strong crease.
With the paper open in front of you like a book, fold each of the top two corners down at a 45 degree angle until they meet at the center crease. Repeat with the bottom two corners at the other end.
With the corners complete, fold down each of the lengthwise sides until they meet at the center crease.
Here’s what the paper looks like with both sides folded down.
Finally, fold the leaf together along the center crease, as if you were closing up a sandwich. Set the leaf aside.
Now it’s time to make two petals. The process is exactly the same as with the leaf, except you flip the paper over once you’ve made the first crease to fold the paper in half. That is, instead of starting with the folded paper open in front of you like a book, turn it over so that faces you like a small tent.
From there, fold down the corners as before.
And then fold down the sides.
And then close it like a sandwich along the center crease. You’ll notice with the petals that all the folds are visible on the outside, whereas they are tucked on the inside for the leaf you first made.
Stack the petal on top of the leaf.
Make a second petal by repeating the steps above and then stack it on top of the pile, being careful not to tangle the folds together as you go. OK! Now, you’ve made one of the four packages comprised of a leaf and two petals.
Repeat the steps above until you have four completed and stacked packages, each with a leaf on the bottom followed by two petals on top. It helps to weigh down each package as you go, to keep them in order.
When you’ve got all four packages complete, stack them together in your hand.
Use your kitchen string to tie the bundle together at its center. Wrap the bundle three or four times, and make sure to tie it together securely.
With the lotus flower bundle securely tied, fan out the paper packages, bending them in the middle as necessary to help them spread.
Start to arrange the lotus flower by bending up a single petal from any of the packages. This will be innermost layer, so bend up as much as you can toward the center of the flower.
Once you have one petal bent upwards, skip the package immediately adjacent and then bend a second petal upwards, repeating until you have your first four petals complete.
Next, double back and bend up the next set of petals from the packages that you previously skipped. You’ll notice as you go that you’re creating a really cool layered effect.
Finally, finish up by folding up the third and fourth layers of petals, alternating as you go, until the flower is complete and all that’s left are the eight leaves at the bottom.
Here’s what the lotus flower looks like once all the petals are formed.
Work your way around the lotus flower to pop out each of the leaves for the flower to stand on.
Here’s what the lotus flower looks like once all the leaves are complete.
Finally, affix the lotus flower to your base with glue or tape and then add a tea light to the center. Your floating lotus flower paper lantern is complete!
Can you share any expert tips from your experience making floating lotus flower paper lanterns? Want to ask a question before you try making one yourself? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
HT: Photo by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.