Gwandeung nori (Kor. 관등놀이, Chin. 觀燈-) refers collectively to all festive events, games, and performances involving lanterns held in celebration of Shakyamuni’s Birthday in traditional Korea. The historical origins of gwandeung nori can be found in Palgwanhoe (Kor. 팔관회, Chin. 八關會, lit. Festival of the Eight Vows) or Jeongwol Yeondeunghoe (Kor. 정월연등회, Chin. 正月燃燈會, Lantern Festival of the First Lunar Month) of the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392). Introduced from China, lantern festivals were slowly integrated into indigenous Korean customs during the Goryo dynasty and became a routine part of celebrations of Shakyamuni’s Birthday during the Joseon period (1392 -1910).
While paper lanterns symbolize enlightenment in Buddhism, for ordinary Koreans the lanterns were festive ornaments. They signaled the arrival of a day on which they could forget about life’s troubles for a short while and indulge themselves in fun activities. Understood in its broad sense, gwandeung nori can include hogi nori (Kor. 호기놀이, Chin. 呼旗戱, fund-raising performance with a flag), guldeung nori (Kor. 굴등놀이, spinning the rope with a lantern), nakhwa nori (Kor. 낙화놀이, lighting pouches with charcoal), fireworks, lantern processions, and celebratory torch lighting. In contemporary Korea, lanterns are hung only in Buddhist temples on the day of Shakyamuni’s birth, but in the past they could be found in every household. There they were hung from a long pole placed in the yard, with the number of lanterns corresponding to the number of children in the household. The lantern pole, known as deunggan (Kor. 등간, Chin. 燈竿) or deungju (Kor. 등주, Chin. 燈柱), was sometimes decorated with pheasant feathers and colorful silk fabrics.