The Belgrave Lantern Festival has become an important winter tradition for me, so last weekend I went along for the sixth time. I wasn’t able to be there last year, and it was good to be back.

The event

To give you some idea of the event, here was this year’s poster:

2024 Festival poster (Belgrave)

Yes, the parade was to be led by Baba Desi, the Wizard of Belgrave. And yes, unless the weather was absolutely terrible, I was going to be there.

Beginning a tradition

The festival itself has been going for nearly two decades - longer than I’ve lived in the area. I don’t know when I first heard about it, but I first went along in 2018.

I remember that afternoon it was drizzling, with more rain predicted, and I was thinking about not going. I ended up deciding I’d go anyway, and I don’t think there was much more rain (actually, I can’t remember more than a few drops at any lantern festival I’ve been at). And clearly I enjoyed it enough to come back.

My previous camera was broken then, so I don’t have many pictures from it, but here’s one lantern from the Burnett Observatory’s collection that caught my eye:

Jupiter (Belgrave)

Trivia: Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. That conspicuous Red Spot on the lantern represents a storm system that has been shrinking for more than a century, but is still larger than our Earth…

Celebrating winter solstice

This year, I visited the Northern Territory to walk the Larapinta Trail, which confused my internal seasons. After all, I left Melbourne when it was still autumn, and came back to it not just winter but cold and wet.

But the main principle of the festival is this: It’s cold, and the days are short, so a little bit of community doesn’t go astray. What better time than the winter solstice, marking the shortest day (and longest night!) of the year?

Actually, since the festival’s always on a Saturday, so it’s usually the Saturday after the solstice rather than literally being on the longest night. But it’s the thought that counts, right?

Solstice comes with a promise: The promise that spring will come, followed by summer. The nights may still be long, and the days may not get warmer just yet, but they are getting longer. Sometime we’ll have days that are long enough and warm enough that, being humans who like to complain, we’ll be complaining it’s too hot 🙂. Perhaps that time will be in September, or perhaps it won’t be till December, but it will come.

And to me, that promise is enough. It’s a promise that works. It’s a completely secular promise that I find far more reliable than the it’s-just-round-the-corner (honest!) religious promises I grew up with. And, given how deeply the seasons affect us, I don’t think it’s surprising that many religions and cultures have seasonal elements.

I’m not sure I’ve seen any Harry Potter inspired lanterns at the festival, but it’s a literal embodiment of Dumbledore’s words:

Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.

After all, while I like the concept of marking and celebrating solstices, I wouldn’t keep going to it if it weren’t fun. People are excited and happy (especially the kids!) There are lots of smiles around, and I smile a lot too. It’s a place and a time where I can be around people and part of something bigger, while also being in my own bubble (and taking a zillion photos!)

Perhaps winter isn’t my favourite time of year, but that doesn’t rule out having great experiences and forming great memories. And over the years this festival has provided both.

Today we’ve reached the halfway point of the year, and I want to wish you all a belated happy winter solstice ❄️. Or perhaps a summer solstice, if you’re that way inclined (along with 68% of the world’s landmass and 90% of the world’s population).

My favourite lantern

The lantern parade contains many creative lanterns, some of which have appeared year after year, so it’s hard to choose a favourite. But I do have a soft spot for the cockatoo:

Cockatoo with dragonfly (Belgrave)

As can be seen there, two people control the two wings, which can be moved independently. That means it can really look like it’s flying through the air.

Here it is in 2019:

Flying above the parade (Belgrave)

And here it is in 2022:

Saluting the crowd (Belgrave)

I must have seen it at least five times, but I was still looking forward to seeing it last weekend. This time, it was joined by a wombat:

Cockatoo with wombat (Belgrave)

Let’s have a few more lanterns!

Here are some more lanterns I noticed in 2019:

Lyrebird (Belgrave)
The owl and the pussy-cat (Belgrave)
The sun will return! (Belgrave)
The Doctor reporting for duty! (Belgrave)
Cheshire Cat (Belgrave)
A phoenix rising above the crowds (Belgrave)

How about some fire?

Another constant at the lantern parades I’ve been at has been the fire dancers spinning and twirling.

Here, for example, is a shot from 2019:

Here comes the fire! (Belgrave)

While here’s one from last weekend:

Getting fired up (Belgrave)

Observing other worlds

I already shared pictures of a Jupiter lantern. That’s just one of many lanterns that the Mount Burnett Observatory bring along:

Mount Burnett Observatory (Belgrave)

They also bring along telescopes, and set them up for viewing if the weather permits. For example, one year I remember seeing the rings in a telescope tuned to Saturn.

This year it was just about full moon:

Full Moon 2024 (Belgrave)

As a result, both telescopes were pointed toward the moon. At first, it looked like clouds would win, but then the clouds parted after the parade.

I take lots of pictures of the full moon, month after month, like the picture above. But I was surprised by how much clearer and realer it looked through the telescope. In particular, the craters in the moon’s surface really looked like craters, in a way they don’t in my photos.

Getting there

The first year I went there, I parked well away from the township and walked the rest of the way. Subsequent years, I figured I might as well walk the entire way. This time round, I walked 10km through the Dandenong Ranges to get there.

This year, the MC estimated at least 2,000 people in the parade itself, and that’s not counting the many, like me, on the sidelines. It gets crowded. So seeing traffic like this reminds me that walking is a good idea:

Yes, it's crowded (Belgrave)

Walking back home can be cold and misty. The first year I did it it was 4°C, and the street lights glowed bright through the mist:

Watch the mist swirling (Belgrave)
Before it's punctured by the headlights (Belgrave)

This time round I don’t know how cold it was, but I had made sure I brought gloves and didn’t get to wearing them at all, so it can’t have been too cold.

Dealing with Covid

2020 was of course the first Covid year. Here in Melbourne the first lockdown had ended mid-May, and restrictions had eased by June, but large crowds weren’t going to be permitted for the foreseeable future.

As it turned out, the winter solstice was only weeks before we went into a second lockdown, though I’m not sure we expected it at the time (perhaps there had been some talk about hotel quarantine breaches, but I’m not sure how seriuos it felt).

The word was that we were going to get a reimagined lantern parade. Lanterns were placed in the shop windows along the street, and we could observe them at our leisure. Maybe do a bit of shopping as well:

Support your local shops! (Belgrave)
An array of lanterns (Belgrave)
The rise of the bird! (Belgrave)
Lighting up the night (Belgrave)
Finding Nemo! (Belgrave)
An owl watches (Belgrave)

The unwanted repeat

By winter 2021 a lot had changed, but Covid still dominated discussions. We had effective vaccines, but not many people had been able to get them, and there had been a lot of controversy around the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The lantern festival had been planned to be in person after a long CovidFree period, but after a fourth lockdown at the end of May it was clear that it would need to be postponed:

2021 festival postponed (Belgrave)

However, there would again be lanterns and other displays in the windows, so I decided to head along to Belgrave on the day.

There were protestors in the township, waving signs about “responsible protest” and the “ongoing loss of freedoms”. There were signs at a nearby park about the importance of social distancing:

Remember social distancing? (Belgrave)

Plus this important message about disposable masks:

How about disposable masks? (Belgrave)

As well as the usual lantern suspects, there were birds in flight at the library:

In flight! (Belgrave)

There was a snowman reminding us that yes, it was winter (though we rarely get snow here in Melbourne):

Snowman (Belgrave)

And there was this cool-looking lizard on a shop window:


Not much in the way of community, but I wasn’t sorry that I’d gone along.

The parade returns!

2022 saw us back to a full parade. We were living with Covid, and the crowds were back. Personally, I’d been concerned about the potential for catching Covid weeks before travelling to the US and Canada. But then I caught it at a family gathering at the start of June instead, recovered, and figured I was unlikely to get it again that soon.

There was a beautiful sunset while waiting for the parade to start:

Sun sets on the shortest day (Belgrave)

Then came the marchers, and the lanterns, and the crowds around on a cold evening, and it was so good to be back.

Another snowman! (Belgrave)
Treble clef (Belgrave)

More than just a parade

The lantern parade is the main part of the festival, of course, but there’s so much more. Depending on the year, there have been decorative tents, circus displays, live music, a variety of stalls, and lots and lots of food on offer.

Fire! (Belgrave)
Autumn is over (Belgrave)
Butterfly! (Belgrave)
Owl! (Belgrave)
Great idea! (Belgrave)

Last weekend, there was a bit of target practice going on with a soccer ball:

Bulls eye! (Belgrave)

Another parade begins

And that brings us to the most recent parade. There was no impressive sunset this year, but that didn’t stop us waiting expectantly for the parade to begin. Here you can see the belly dancers in the background:

The parade is starting (Belgrave)

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one capturing the moment 😉.

Not only were there a lot of humans about, but even snowmen were watching the parade:

I'm Frosty the Snowman, and I give heartfelt approval! (Belgrave)

A final selection of lanterns

I’ve already said that I have a soft spot for the cockatoo, but here’s another flying beast from this year:

Be on your guard - dragon approaching (Belgrave)
Here it comes! (Belgrave)

Not to mention a clock, a tram from Thomas the Tank Engine, and a dog with impressively glowing eyes:

Is it that time already? (Belgrave)
Toby the tram engine (Belgrave)
Do not be alarmed! (Belgrave)

Finally, there was the magnificent and - dare I say it - heartfelt collection of lanterns that were putting heart into the Hills:

Putting heart into the Hills (Belgrave)
Resting after the parade (Belgrave)

Happy winter solstice!

It wouldn’t be a surprise if June 2025 once more found me in Belgrave celebrating the winter solstice. Many things can change in a year, of course, but it’s a great festival well worth visiting.

Until then - a belated happy winter solstice!