Candles in the Wind

In many Asian countries, a centuries-old tradition of releasing lanterns into the sky has captured the imagination of millions, though the concept has been on a slow boat to America. But now San Antonio has given us a roadmap to these man-made stars.
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The Idea
Last year, in the Disney movie Tangled, a pivotal scene found the young princess and her suitor on a boat surrounded by hundreds of glowing lanterns soaring above and reflected in the water below. The boat appeared to be floating in the stars. Ever since, sales of sky lanterns—which act like mini hot air balloons rising from the heat of a flame—have shot up for small parties and weddings. But no American cities have launched the kind of large-scale aerial shows like Poznan, Poland did in June when its citizens released 11,000 lanterns into the sky, making for a spectacular sight (and a new Guinness World Record) that was viewed on YouTube nearly a million times within weeks. So why not here? There are the obvious and important concerns such as fire safety and the environment. But last year, new 100 percent biodegradable lanterns made from bamboo and rice paper came on to the market. And fire safety is rarely an issue because the lanterns don’t float back down to earth until the fire goes out.

These biodegradable lanterns are the kind that organizers of a new San Antonio festival called Luminaria used in March when they floated 300 lanterns over HemisFair Park without a hitch while the San Antonio Symphony played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “We did have serious concerns,” said Christopher Monestier of the San Antonio Fire Department, “but ultimately approved the release after taking extra precautions.” Those included having fire marshals on site, bringing in dozens of fire extinguishers for the volunteers lighting the lanterns, and making sure the wind speed and direction were acceptable. And according to co-organizer Rod Rubbo, it was one of the highlights of the festival that drew over 300,000 spectators.

The Players
Imagine such a display here, perhaps to kick off or conclude the State Fair at Cal Expo, or over Folsom Lake for the Fourth of July, with the lights reflecting in the water, or to inaugurate development of the railyards—once the site of Sacramento’s original Chinatown. Just like with the world’s first electrical parade that was held here in 1895, we could once again be a beacon for those seeking extraordinary lighting theatrics. Or if an aerial display becomes too cumbersome, we could also emulate cities like New York, Hiroshima and Honolulu, which float glowing lanterns on water—on rivers, lakes and the ocean. Imagine the Sacramento River aglow with hundreds of biodegradable lanterns for New Year’s Eve.

The Bottom Line
The cost of the lanterns is minimal. A package of 100 eco-lanterns from runs only $290, less than $3 each. In Poland, the public picked up the cost, paying for their individual lanterns. And if San Antonio, with a population nearly identical to ours, can draw 300,000 visitors for a one-night event using fire and light, this is one shooting star we just might want to hitch our wagon to.