A lantern is an often portable source of lighting, typically featuring a protective enclosure for the light source – historically usually a candle or a wick in oil, and often a battery-powered light in modern times – to make it easier to carry and hang up, and make it more reliable outdoors or in drafty interiors. Lanterns may also be used for signaling, as torches, or as general light-sources outdoors.
The lantern enclosure was primarily used to prevent a burning candle or wick being extinguished from wind, rain or other causes. Some antique lanterns have only a metal grid, indicating their function was to protect the candle or wick during transportation and avoid the excess heat from the top to avoid unexpected fires.
Another important function was to reduce the risk of fire should a spark leap from the flame or the light be dropped. This was especially important below deck on ships: a fire on a wooden ship was a major catastrophe. Use of unguarded lights was taken so seriously that obligatory use of lanterns, rather than unprotected flames, below decks was written into one of the few known remaining examples of a pirate code, on pain of severe punishment.
Lanterns may also be used for signaling. In naval operations, ships used lights to communicate at least as far back as the Middle Ages; the use of a lantern that blinks code to transmit a message dates to the mid-1800s. In railroad operations, lanterns have multiple uses. Permanent lanterns on poles are used to signal trains about the operational status of the track ahead, sometimes with color gels in front of the light to signify stop, etc. Historically, a flagman at a level crossing used a lantern to stop cars and other vehicular traffic before a train arrived. Lanterns also provided a means to signal from train-to-train or from station-to-train.
A "dark lantern" was a candle lantern with a sliding shutter so that a space could be conveniently made dark without extinguishing the candle. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Red-Headed League", the detective and police make their way down to a bank vault by lantern light but then put a 'screen over that dark lantern' in order to wait in the dark for thieves to finish tunneling. This type of lantern could also preserve the light source for sudden use when needed.
Lanterns may be used in religious observances. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, lanterns are used in religious processions and liturgical entrances, usually coming before the processional cross. Lanterns are also used to transport the Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Great Saturday during Holy Week.
Lanterns are used in many Asian festivals. During the Ghost Festival, lotus shaped lanterns are set afloat in rivers and seas to symbolically guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife. During the Lantern Festival, the displaying of many lanterns is still a common sight on the 15th day of the first lunar month throughout China. During other Chinese festivities, kongming lanterns (sky lanterns) can be seen floating high into the air. Lanterns are the central theme of the Seoul Lantern Festival in South Korea. However, some jurisdictions and organizations ban the use of sky lanterns because of concerns about fire and safety.
The term "lantern" can be used more generically to mean a light source, or the enclosure for a light source, even if it is not portable. Decorative lanterns exist in a wide range of designs. Some hang from buildings, such as street lights enclosed in glass panes. Others are placed on or just above the ground; low-light varieties can function as decoration or landscape lighting, and can be a variety of colours and sizes. The housing for the top lamp and lens section of a lighthouse may be called a lantern.
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