Vancouver’s Winter Solstice Lantern Festival involves evening music and fire performances on December 21st at the Yaletown Roundhouse and Granville Island.
Some years, activities also take place at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Chinatown.
In 2019 the 26th Annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival took place on Saturday, December 21st. In 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and government orders banning live events, this year’s festival takes place online instead of at its usual venues. See the secretlantern.org website for details.
Vancouver Winter Solstice Festival
The festival takes place during the Christmas season, but it isn’t a Christmas-themed event. Rather, it’s a celebration of the darkest day of the year and old-world traditions. It’s also fun, family-friendly, community-focused and mostly free, although some venues are ticketed and donations are encouraged.
Click any of the above locations to jump to a description about each particular venue’s activities, or see below for more information about all the activities.
Winter Solstice Events
The two venues for the 26th Annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival that occurred in 2019 are listed below.
In normal years, the events usually run from around 6:00 until 10:00 pm (plus or minus), and typical activities include lantern making, a procession through the streets and area walkways, music, fire performances and other forms of entertainment. In some cases, the events also feature a ticketed candle-lit labyrinth to walk around.
The same as in previous years, among other things, the 2019 festival featured lantern-making workshops. These took place at either the Roundhouse Community Centre or the False Creek Community Centre. Folk could choose from four different types of lanterns: star, globe, pin-prick and nature. New for 2019, the workshops took place at select dates and times before the festival in addition to on the December 21st date.
Lanterns cost between $15 and $25 each and advanced registration was required.
At the Roundhouse in Yaletown
The Yaletown event takes place primarily at the Roundhouse Community Centre at 181 Roundhouse Mews, although last year its procession started at 6:00 pm at the Gathering Place Community Centre at 609 Helmcken Street.
The event schedule in Yaletown in 2019 included the following (and 2021 details will likely be similar):
- Pre 6:00 pm – free food, music and last-minute lantern-making opportunities at the Gathering Place Community Centre
- 6:00 pm – procession via Emery Barnes Park from the Gathering Place to the Roundhouse Community Centre
- 6:00 to 10:00 pm – music, food, performances, workshops and other activities at the Roundhouse Community Centre
- 6:00 – 8:00 pm – last-minute lantern-making opportunities
- 8:00 – 8:30 pm – additional small family lantern procession to David Lam Park
- 10:30 pm – Labyrinth closing ceremony
2019’s schedule of events was similar to the 2018 schedule. The procession departed from the Gathering Place at 6 pm and made its way to the Roundhouse. The last-minute lantern making in 2019 was scheduled to take place at the Roundhouse.
In 2019 the second procession again went to David Lam Park from 8 until around 8:30. Also the same as the year before, in 2019, a range of activities took place inside the Roundhouse Community Centre between 6 and 10 pm.
The Winter Solstice Festival in Yaletown is typically free, although suggested donations of $5 per participant are appreciated.
In 2018 live entertainment at the Roundhouse included music, Morris dancing and First Nations performances. The 8 pm procession to David Lam Park involved up to about 200 people, was led by a Morris Dance group, and was greeted in the park by a cool band of drummers.
In past years the fire show has been held in David Lam Park and been especially impressive.
At the Yaletown Roundhouse venue there is also usually a “Labyrinth of Light” featuring over 600 beeswax candles that people can walk around, at set times. Last year it was either free or $9 depending on whether you were older or younger than around 12 years of age.
For more information about the labyrinth, including the one at the Granville Island venue, see further below.
False Creek & Granville Island
With this component of the festival there are usually at least a couple of processions that start in different locations but finish at the same place, at the False Creek Community Centre on Granville Island.
In 2019 there were two processions. One began by the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre at Vanier Park and another on Granville Island at Ocean Artworks at 1531 Johnston Street.
The procession starting at Vanier Park was scheduled to depart at around 6 pm. The one from Granville Island started at Triangle Square (just outside the public market) at around 6:20 pm.
The processions typically converge at the water park outside the False Creek Community Centre at 1318 Cartwright Street on Granville Island. The walks are fun and family-friendly, and participants are welcome to bring handmade lanterns for the journey.
After the processions there are usually free indoor activities at the False Creek Community Centre between around 6 and 10 pm.
At the community centre in recent years there has been a small room with shadow puppetry, another small room with live Jazz, and ongoing live entertainment in the main gymnasium. There is also sometimes a room with paper lantern-making activities (at a cost of $25 or so per lantern) and headdress-making crafts (by donation).
The finale to the Granville Island festivities is usually a procession shortly after 9 pm led by a band to Ron Basford Park where the fire show takes place. The fire show is on the hill, it is quite impressive and usually hundreds of people attend.
(TIP: Most years the best place to watch from is at the bottom of the hill in front of the metal Ron Basford Park sign about 100 or so feet from the Granville Island Hotel. From there you get a great view of the show at the top of the hill, and front row seats for a brief period when performers come right up close).
Similar to the Winter Solstice events in Yaletown, the festivities at Granville Island are mostly free, although donations are encouraged.
Festival Labyrinths of Light
Note: In addition to the processions, community centre activities and final light show, there was also a “Labyrinth of Light” at Performance Works at 1218 Cartwright Street on Granville Island from 6 until 10 pm on December 21st in 2019. A virtually identical labyrinth was also set up at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown.
A labyrinth is a meditative maze-like pattern that’s usually two-dimensional and on the ground or floor of a spiritual place. The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival version(s) feature over 600 beeswax candles. Many religions use labyrinths for prayer and contemplative purposes, including a variety of Christian churches.
Tickets for the Labyrinth of Lights at Performance Works in 2019, as well as for the similar maze at the Roundhouse, cost $9 and could have been purchased for set times in advance. Children under a certain age were free (13 or younger). 2020 and 2021 details are to be confirmed.
Below are some tips to help you make the most of your labyrinth experience at the Winter Solstice Lantern Festival.
TIP #1: Both the festival’s labyrinths are beautiful. In past years the Granville Island one is usually slightly less busy, and it’s in a theatre whereas the Roundhouse labyrinth is in a gymnasium. With both, the lights are dim so they look and feel very similar.
TIP #2: Expect to wait in line for your turn, even with your timed ticket admission. The wait isn’t too long though. Once inside, expect your labyrinth experience to last about 20 minutes. Feel free to take your time, relax, enjoy and know that there is no official right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth (so long as it doesn’t negatively impact other people, like if you make noise or lie on the ground, both of which are not permitted).
TIP #3: The Roundhouse labyrinth is typically busier than the Granville Island venue. It gets especially busy some years between around 6:30 and 8:30 pm, and least busy after 9 pm (which is after very young families have gone home and everyone else is outside for the fire show). When it’s busy the lineup to get in gets long, but it never gets too overly crowded in the labyrinth itself.
TIP #4: When we’ve been in previous years photos without flash were permitted at the Granville Island venue in the labyrinth room but outside the labyrinth itself (so up to its outer edge but not while walking around it once inside). Because it was so busy, however, in 2017, participants at the Roundhouse venue were asked not to take photos (at least that’s what organizers were requesting when it was especially busy).
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden
Chinatown’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden holds special events periodically, and one of them is often the Winter Solstice Festival held on December 21st each year. The Garden hosted activities in 2018, but wasn’t scheduled to participate in 2019.
In years when it does happen, the Winter Solstice Festival at the garden is a small but interesting event, and features a selection of beautiful lanterns, lights scattered around the garden and live music in a side room.
If you plan to be in the area anyway (perhaps for Chinese food at one of the nearby Chinatown restaurants), and you are into lanterns and winter solstice celebrations, you should check it out.
The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival takes place most (but not all) years at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden at 578 Carrall Street from 6 to 10 pm.
Although admission is free at Vancouver’s other Winter Lantern Festival venues, at the Chinatown event, in years when it happens, there is a cost.
Differences Between the Festival Venues
Each year the Winter Solstice Lantern Festival is celebrated in more than one venue. Wondering how each of them compares? See below for how each venue is both unique and similar to the others.
The Granville Island and Roundhouse venues are the most similar. Festival activities at both places include impressive fire shows, similar live entertainment and identical craft workshops. Both are hosted at community centres and general admission is free, although donations are encouraged. Both also feature the virtually identical candle labyrinth that cost about $9 per adult last year.
Crafts at the two community centres include the same lantern-making and headdresses. The lanterns are usually made out of paper, sticks, glue, dried flowers and leaves. They are beautiful and their cost varies on the type of lantern made (although last year they were around $25). The headdresses are kind of like wreathes that you wear on your head and are made out of green twigs and leaves. They are by donation and available to make while supplies last.
How do the Granville Island and Roundhouse festivals differ? The Roundhouse venue is perhaps slightly busier and it’s conveniently close to a SkyTrain station. The fire shows at both places are excellent, although the one at Granville Island is arguably slightly more impressive because it takes place on a hill which is pretty cool. Other than that, although different, the two venues are pretty comparable.
The event at Dr. Sun-Yat Sen Garden, meanwhile, in years when it happens, has the tea ceremony as well as a general admission fee, but no labyrinths or fire shows. The Chinatown event also has more of a Chinese-theme (because of its location) and features beautiful lanterns throughout the gardens.
About the Festival
Vancouver’s Winter Solstice Festival is put on by the Secret Lantern Society which is a not-for-profit, artist-run and community-driven organization. In 2020 the organization celebrates its annual December event for the 27th time!
The mission of the society is to “provide opportunities for the public to engage with professional artists, participate in multicultural celebrations, … and become involved in their own neighbourhoods and diverse cultural activities through volunteer activities.”
For more information about the event, see the Winter Solstice Festival website.
For a list of other things to do at other times in the Lower Mainland, check out any of the following: