As I walked through Boerner Botanical Gardens I was transported back to my childhood in a suburb of Chicago. Every December, each resident on Forest Avenue would impressively adorn their home with Christmas lights, nativity sets and inflatable Santas in sleighs pulled by reindeer. People would park their cars nearby, get out and walk the three-block stretch of decorations.
The entire month of October, Boerner is displaying the China Lights exhibit. The intricate lanterns were brought to the U.S from Zigong City, China. Lantern festivals are as important in Chinese culture as Christmas is for many Westerners. Celebrated in eitherFebruary or March, they are symbolic of the light that arrives with spring. Lanterns grew from their original practical purposes, to artistic expressions, to a celebration of their own.
I arrived with a wanderlust I didn’t think China Lights in small town Hales Corner, Wisconsin could cure. It’s just not the same as visiting another continent, I convinced myself with no real argument as to why besides, of course, a 20-hour flight.
We entered through a traditional Asian archway of bright red silk that screened thousands of LED bulbs. It made an incandescent red highlight the passageway despite the fact that it was 5 p.m. and just beginning to get dark. We continued through yellow silk lanterns with unique green and purple foliage designs arranged into columns and rafters that created an underpass.
It was cold and muddy but no one seemed to notice. The animals of the Chinese zodiac surrounded the stage. I passed the rat, the ox, the tiger, and the monkey all before finding mine, the year of the dragon. An hour before performances were schedule to start I noticed families beginning to pack in and I zealously poached a spot with a view.
A woman came out wearing a traditional tight-fitting Chinese dress. She introduced the dancers and honorably described their importance to her culture. She reminisced about her hometown in China, told us about her life in Wisconsin and talked playfully about her American husband. She came out between each act—which included local school boys synchronizing their yo-yos to music, a Mongolian girl juggling umbrellas with her feet, and the finale where four professional Chinese acrobats showcased their balance and synergy with flips and stunts.
Now that it was completely dark, we walked along the outskirts of the gardens to see the lights. Scenes of animals guided large crowds through the path, pandas under rainbows and on seesaws, giraffes oddly taller than the trees, koi fish surrounded by lotus flowers and fireflies amongst mushrooms and tulips. People reprehensibly stepped over the single thin rope to get photos of themselves in the landscape. Before I reached the end of the path I could see the main attraction, a 200-foot dragon. It was vibrant,reds and yellows lit the entire field it sat in. We stood there for a few minutes trying to get a picture that included both the dragon and us, but it was too big for a selfie so we quit.
I thought I had reached the end, but as I looked behind a few trees, I noticed a wooden bridge passed over a small pond. I had barely noticed the hordes of people I followed, each of us mesmerized by the hundreds of lanterns suspended from the beams above our heads. “Follow the yellow brick road” a family in front of me joked. “Follow the lanterned bridge,” they continued, carrying the same beat. Would my wanderlust be cured? Could this bridge take me to China? Right before reaching the end, we were in a trance of electric blue life-sized windmills.
I thought back to my reservations upon arriving at the gardens. I had actually felt like I experienced a lantern festival. This was authentic. Thank you, Zigong City. The light may not signify spring for Wisconsin; alternatively, it ignited my new appreciation for culture and the tiniest towns we find it. I was rekindled, not like a bright light you get from the sun, rather a creative colorful glow of reds, yellows, blues and greens.