Chinese New Year

Posted by Edna Zhou & Siting Ke on January 01, 2014

History and Culture

Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is one of the most important Chinese holidays. Based on the lunar calendar, the date changes every year; in 2014, the Year of the Horse, it falls on January 31. Working professionals in China will have at least seven days of holiday to celebrate.

In folk culture, celebrating the New Year is also called “guonian”(过年) which means “passing a year”. In ancient Chinese tales, the “nian”(年) is said to be a strong monster with a long head and sharp horn, who dwelt deep in the sea all the year round but every New Year’s eve would climb onto the shore to devour livestock and humans in a nearby village. People were scared and had to hide when the Nian came out. 

Later, people found Nian was afraid of the color red and fireworks. Afterwards, when the beast arrived at the village, it was met with a sudden burst of exploding firecrackers. Startled by the loud sound, the flashes of light and red banners flying around, it hastily retreated and fled away!

As a result, red decorations and boisterous noise were linked with happiness and festivals, and the tradition of using red and setting off fireworks remains.

Cleaning the house is another important task in preparation for the holiday. Every corner will be thoroughly cleaned and all linen is washed and dried before New Year’s Day. It is believed that this complete cleaning clears out bad luck from the previous year, so the house is ready to preserve the good luck of the coming year.

Religion and Gods

Most Chinese people are not religious, but the influence of Buddhism and Taoism remains in customs. In many households, people clean their home altars and statues, take down and burn old decorations, and replace them with new ones. This “send off” should be done on the 24th day of the twelfth lunar month, when various gods are believed to go to heaven to report household affairs to the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist deity. Households also burn ritualistic paper money to provide for these gods’ traveling expenses. 

One of the traveling gods is the Kitchen God. To please him and ensure he submits a favorable report, families usually smear malt sugar on his lips or offer up sweet foods, such as glutinous rice cake. 

The most popular deity during this time is the God of Wealth. His image appears on posters, cards, red envelopes, in the shape of dessert and even as a mascot, usually dressed in the style of Chinese Mandarin official, holding symbols of wealth such as a gold ingot.

Manners and Traditions

It is also common to purchase food such as fish, meat, roasted nuts and seeds, and all kinds of candies and fruits. New clothes must also be bought. During the Chinese Spring Festival, people prefer to wear new clothes - especially children, who are also given red envelopes with money in them.

Another tradition is to paste "fu" (福) signs and spring couplets on gates, doorframes, walls and windows. People also buy flowers with symbolic meanings for their home; common choices are plum blossoms and water narcissus. 

Spring couplets are a pair of red scrolls with complementary poetic couplets, which are pasted at every gate, one line on each side. The character "fu"(福) is pasted on the center of the door upside down. In northern China, paper-cuttings are used to adorn windows. 

Paintings are another traditional decoration. Most New Year paintings are based on historical stories, fairy tales or traditional operas. The most common paintings are door gods pasted on the front entrance to keep guard.

Importance of Family

Family reunions are the most important part of the celebration. The reunion dinner is supposed to last until after midnight and everyone, even children, should stay up all night. The biggest meal is on the eve of the New Year. Eight or nine traditional dishes are prepared and served, because these two numbers are auspicious numbers meaning prosperity and longevity, respectively. Big families should double or triple these numbers. 

Common dishes served in the reunion dinner all have symbolic meanings. For example, glutinous rice cake, "nian gao"(过年), sounds like “getting higher year by year”; the words for tangerine and orange echo luck. Fish is always an important dish as it represents hope for a wealthy year.

Lighting firecrackers is also an important activity and the most fun part for many people. It is said firecrackers drive away evil and bad luck, and the person who launches the first firecracker in the New Year will have good fortune. Just after midnight on New Year's Eve, the sound of firecrackers can be heard everywhere and the whole country bursts with the thundering, happy noise.

For the following two weeks, people will visit relatives and friends, go shopping, watch traditional Chinese shows and plan for the New Year. The celebration comes to an end on the fifteenth day, called Lantern Festival, when lantern and dragon parades are performed. Families on that day will hang up lanterns around the house, which represent the brightness of spring. 

Taboos

However, some taboos must be kept in mind. Because the Spring Festival is the starting point for a New Year, it is regarded as an omen of the year, focused on bringing good luck. So people try to avoid anything inauspicious. Bad words, like “death”, “broken”, “killing”, “ghost”, “illness” or “sickness” are forbidden during conversations. 

In some places, there are more specific and severe details: it is unlucky if the barrel of rice is empty because it indicates there will be nothing to eat in the next year. Taking medicine is forbidden on this day; otherwise, people will be sick and take medicine the whole year. Also, people refuse to sweep the floor or cut hair, some even believe that nothing should be thrown out, in case good fortune for the New Year is wiped out at the same time. Black is forbidden, because black is associated with death. 

Although some customs are condemned as superstition, the cultural practices relating to the Chinese New Year do have social functions even if they are not very obvious. The celebration of Chinese New Year is a form of cultural transmission and highlights the values and aspiration of the Chinese. 

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