Whispering into the gardens

The Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival is held every year
at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Como Park.

Pillars across the foot bridge. Stepping stones in the garden. Candles floating on the river.

Our first lantern lighting festival was unlike any festival I have ever been to, and yet it has stayed with me, every night since August 18th.

The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Saint Paul, Minnesota, hosts the Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival annually in August. It is held during the three days of Obon, a Japanese holiday when ancestral spirits are said to revisit their families.

In character
By day, the event is a festive celebration of Japanese culture. The paths are lined with bonsai plants, kimonos, and characters of the written language in calligraphy ink. Japanese folk dances decorate the stage while black belts demonstrate martial arts in the lawn.

By night, the festival takes on an ethereal feel. Conversations drift to a subtle whisper, photographers get out their strongest lenses and the gardens become illuminated in lights.

For years, I have seen the festival in photographs. A search for photos of Saint Paul or Como Park, where the conservatory is located, often turns up beautiful images of paper lanterns at night, set against the backdrop of the conservatory lights. But to see the lantern lighting first-hand is nothing short of magical.

Lighting the lanterns
After gorging themselves all day on sushi and spring rolls, everyone gathers on the hill beside the frog pond.

Young and old, solemn and giddy, people line the edges of the pond and the river that flows from it, waiting patiently for dusk. The sun sets behind the glass conservatory windows, casting warm light onto the hill below. People relax on lawn chairs and blankets, and some sit humbly in the grass. They share photos and stories, anything to pass the time before what is to come.

When the first hint of twilight falls on the conservatory, volunteers begin to light paper lanterns on land. The lanterns form a line in the grass, and their light projects gently through the paper shades. Then, using metal handles more than six feet long, volunteers place the lanterns gently on the river, where they float in the direction of the current.

The effect is one of echoing light. Each lantern glows once on the water, then twice in its reflection. The paper lanterns flicker in the midst of the conservatory — now a building made of light —as they gradually drift down the river. The crowd is silent; thoughtful and watchful as the candles pass. Some of them hold round paper lanterns, serenading the lights from the shore.

Something deeper
It all felt terribly romantic, though Matt and I had something deeper to share in this place. We knew, going in, this was a celebration for those who have gone before us. So, when we saw the lanterns moving silently on the river, we were moved, almost to tears.

Each lantern traveled at its own pace, as if some ancestors walked slower or faster, and each lantern took on its own characteristics as it went, depending on how it was touched by the water or the rocks. Several lanterns pooled together in certain spots, as if family was finding itself here, before our eyes in the river. Other lanterns meandered in and out of the other groups, as if a family friend or a cherished love was passing through.

In the darkness, surrounded on all sides by light, the paper lanterns became, for me, a symbol of tranquility.

The lights seemed to whisper into the gardens, signaling that our loved ones are at peace.

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