A Brand New Start Bursting with Joy
The Chinese New Year Spring Festival, the people's most important traditional festival in China, has a history of more than four thousand years. Since it is based on the lunar calendar, the exact day is quite flexible in solar dates and often lays in later January or early February. Nowadays spring festival lasts only 3-7 days, but in the old Chinese tradition people enjoyed the time for almost one month, starting from the 23th of the 12th lunar month to the 15th of the next first lunar month which is named Yuan Xiao Jie in Chinese or Lantern Festival. Now let’s take a look at how traditional Chinese celebrate the national feast.
The Legend of Nian and Xi
First, let’s talk about the origin of Spring Festival by a legend. Here the story goes.
Once there was a man-eating wild monster called Xi with an extremely large mouth which could swallow several people in a single bite. On every last day of a year, it came to villages and attacked people. The villagers lived in a terror over these days. Heaven got to know the pain the earth was suffering and decided to send an immortal named Nian to help people defeat the monster. Finally, the battle ended in victory. Then Nian and villagers together held a feast, celebrating until the first Chou Shi, the period of a day during 1 a.m and 3 a.m. When Nian was to leave, he taught people several ways to scare off Xi. He said XI feared of the crack sound of burning bamboo and the color red. People could burn bamboo, put up red paper and hang red lanterns to keep Xi away.
The following year, the villagers were ready for Xi’s annual visit. They burnt bamboo, lit all their lamps and decorated their houses in red, pasting red paper on the doors, wearing red clothing, hanging up red lanterns, to scare away the monster. With Nian’s help, people no longer suffered from Xi. To memorize the day the monster was defeated, they named the eve of a lunar year as Chu Xi which means to eliminate Xi in Chinese and the feast as Nian to remember the immortal.
After years, firecrackers were made to substitute burning bamboo. Instead of putting up red paper all over the house, two bars of red paper, on which blessing words were written in black ink, hung on each side of a door. This was how couplets appeared.
Ya Sui money, or gift money, is a Chinese New Year custom. During Spring Festival, the elders prepare a red envelope with money in it and give it to the youngers as a gift, meaning blessing and good luck. There is also a story behind the custom. In the ancient times, a demon named Sui, with a black body and white hands, came out on the eve of each new year and touched the forehead of sleeping children. Children then would run a high fever and after that they would turn dull. But Sui feared the light reflected from the ancient coins and the color red, so people gave children a bunch of coins stringed by a red rope to keep Sui away from them. Years later, paper money replaced the ancient coins and the custom changed accordingly to the form we see today. This tradition in many ways resemble the Western belief of using garlic and crosses to fight vampires.
Another way Chinese used to scare off evil monsters at the start of the new year is the lion dance, let's now find out more about this tradition. The lion dance is a familiar sight on the streets of Chinatown during Chinese New Year celebrations. This is a traditional lively dance that combines art, history and culture, with the rigors of Chinese martial arts movements. Lion symbolizes courage, strength and authority and according to the legends we mention above, loud noise can frighten away monsters and ghosts. Then we can see two dancers form the lion, one holds the lion's head revolves the front part of the lion's body while the second dancer forms the body and the tail of the lion. Together they plump to the rhythm of the drums and music. Today the lion dance is performed to usher in a new and prosperous year and believed to bring in good luck and wealth to the business.
The 23rd of the 12th Luna Month
Cleaning，Decoration and Purchase
On the 23rd of the 12th luna month, every household offer a sacrifice to the Kitchen God. The god has provided the family with protection and supervision for a whole year and is leaving back to Heaven and report on that day. The ritual is usually held in the kitchen at dusk . A family put some desserts which are made of caramel and flour on a table, and burn joss sticks to show respect and appreciation to Kitchen God.
After the sacrifice, it is time to officially begin the preparation of the New Year. Sweeping and cleaning come first. When Chinese New Year approaches, every household would sweep off dust and clean the room, including tools, bedding, curtain,etc. Along with the dust, bad luck and poverty would be also swept away.
When the cleaning is done, people start to decorate their home to be warm and joyful. Paper-cut window decoration and couplets are quite essential. Traditional paper cut is also called Window Blossoms. Red papers are cut into shapes of ice flowers and used to ornament windows, meaning blessing, fortunes and the welcome of the new year.
Couplet is a special art of character in China which means to boosts the festival ambiance. They are two bars of red paper on which blessing words are written in calligraphy and often posted on each side of the door, showing a door equivalence. A good couplet is neat and concise, rigorous and propitious, with glorious image and good wishes.
Besides paper cut and couplets, there are more forms of decoration in different regions. For example, in HeNan Province, the Chinese character FU which means good fortune will be post upside down on the door, standing for the arrival of good fortune in the coming year. In the rural regions, small square red paper are usually sticked to the containers, such as water vat or wine jar，on which special Chinese phrases meaning bottomlessness or inexhaustibility are written.
In the past, from 24th of the 12th lunar month, purchasing market for the Spring Festival began. It was the only time peddlers and vendors could take their goods and groceries outside the farmers market and sell along the street. Usually, people would buy lots of pork to make Chinese sausage and preserved meat, sticky rice to make rice cake or New Year cake, or assorted candies.
Chu Xi, the Eve of Chinese New Year
It is the last day of the lunar year and has been attached much importance. The seal play in the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China is a special form. On the afternoon of ChuXi, the theatrical troupe put on the performance to show their appreciation to immortals by cross-casting and the attendance was always a high figure.
Then comes the most important meal in a year, the New Year’s Eve dinner. The dinner embodies three important cultural elements. First, reunion. All members of a family gather from elsewhere to their hometown, to their roots. Second, celebration. Share and celebrate the harvest in the past year. Third, wish. Look forward to future and make a wish of what to do in the next year, usually including the expectation parents lay on children.
The cuisines and delicacies are differed from region to region. Generally, the north enjoy wheat products, such as dumplings, while the south prefer rice products, like Nian Gao or New Year cake.
New Year Cakes
But some dishes are so popular and representative that you can see them on the table in almost every household all over the country. One is eight-treasure rice pudding. We know that Chinese love rice, but the cuisine is more a dessert than a staple. It is made of steamed glutinous rice with bean paste, walnuts, red dates, lotus seeds, preserved fruit and tastes sweet. The dish is much like a cornucopia with all the delicacies which implies good luck and happiness and better to share with the whole family.
Fish is always a part of the dinner because in Chinese it represents abundance. People conform to an default rule that fish, as the last dish of the dinner, should be not touched and better maintained complete，implying a future life with materially secure.
The most bustling dish might be Hot Pot. Actually it is not a dish but a way of cooking. You can put whatever you like or delicious in a pot, add spices or seasoning, up to your preference and then boil and stew. The ingredients and flavors differ from region to region. No matter basin meal in Guangzhou, spicy hot pot in Sichuan or FoTiaoQiang, a classical soup which is made of 18 or more pricey seafood and poultry in Fujian, these are basically cooked in the same Hot Pot way.
New Lunar Year
1st of the first lunar month
As the very beginning of a year, liveliness, boisterousness and vitality are essential elements. Thus, the first thing is to open the door and set off firecrackers. The loud sound means farewell to the old year and welcome to the new. Another thing on the new Year to-do list is worship. Be genuine when approaching God and authentically pray for his protection and blessing. Later, people wear new clothes and bring New Year Greetings to their relatives and friends, wishing each other good luck and happy during the new year. In Chinese villages, some villagers may have hundreds of relatives, so they have to spend more than two weeks visiting their relatives.
There are also something in the tradition people cannot do on the day. Killing, as well as any forms of violence, is a taboo because they may lead to disasters in the coming year. An interesting thing is that we cannot do sweeping which is considered that it would drive away good luck and fortune.
2nd of the first lunar month
On this day, Chinese, especially businessmen, would offer a sacrifice to the God of Wealth with lamp, rooster, carp and rice cakes, praying for financial luck. Besides, those who married should go back to visit the wife’s mother, with proper gifts. The rest of the days, people mostly visit their friends, have some reunions or gatherings and take rest, until the 15th of the first lunar month.
YuanXiao Jie or Lantern Festival
The day, named YuanXiao Jie in Chinese or Lantern Festival, is the first full moon in the year. Celebrations and traditions on this day could date back to the Western Han Dynasty. Lantern Fairs are usually held in a large park or square. As the name indicates, lanterns, of various shapes and sizes displayed on the tree or along river banks, are the leading star. Lantern riddles is a classical game in this festival. The riddles, may be a poem, a word, a phrase, are written on the hanging lanterns and people must guess an answer from them. The formats of lantern riddles is unique that it consist of three parts, the riddles, the suggest, and the answer. There are many different meaning in a Chinese character. If you want to get the answer, you have to think deeply with a different meaning of the words. And no repeat characters appear between the riddles and the answers.
Lantern Festival stands for the end of Spring Festival. As a new year finally arrives, people, with expectation and energy, start to work hard and keep running their life better.
Unique ways to celebrate Spring Festival
People in HongKong also celebrate the lunar Chinese New Year but in its own way and tradition. FaiChun, a type of calligraphy in Cantonese area, is gradually taking place of those traditional decorations, like couplets, but expressing similar blessing and wishes.
It is illegal to set off firecrackers in HongKong, but the firework show in Vitoria Harbor attracts thousands of people from all over the world to celebrate the coming of New Year together.
There is nothing more interesting than strolling the flower markets for people in Macao during Spring Festival. A major tradition there is giving flowers, potted plants, and bouquets as gifts which is considered to bring good luck and fortune. Kumquat plants, a small orange citrus fruit, are a recommended gift. In Cantonese "kum" means gold, Kumquat brings a wish of financial prosper.
A regular stuff to do during Spring Festival is to handmake NianKe or new year cake. Different from the way of the mainland, the residents in Taiwan use barley as the main ingredient and set the dessert in different categorizes according to the additional substances, the ways of cooking, the flavor or just the shape, like the carrot cake and sweetened cake.