CHINESE Lunar New Year has been celebrated for more than 4,000 years since Emperor Shun is said to have ascended the throne on New Year’s Day and paid homage to Heaven and Earth.
But in the years that followed, festivities were reputedly disrupted by monsters called Nian — year in Chinese — that terrorized people and gobbled them up; they were said to be especially fond of eating little children.
Nian lived in the mountains and descended on villages at dusk on every Lunar New Year’s Eve, devouring people and livestock. At dawn, they would return to their mountain lair.
For protection, people strengthened fences, huddled together as families and ate nianyefan (New Year’s Eve dinner). Since they didn’t know whether they would survive the night, the meal was a lavish feast, lest it be their last.
One New Year’s Eve, it was noticed that the rampaging monsters did not eat a newlywed couple who wore red, covered their windows in red material and decorated their house in the same color.
Children also discovered that monsters fled when they lit bamboo sticks that made loud cracking noises as they burned.
Villagers realized that the monsters feared the color red, bright lights and cracking sounds.
From this knowledge, many customs associated with the Spring Festival — Chunjie (春节) — celebrations arose.
The Lunar New Year — which falls on February 19 this year and welcomes the Year of the Sheep — is the most important festival of the year and family is at the heart of it.
“Chinese New Year celebrations place great emphasis on family reunion and most customs are practiced within the family,” says Tian Zhaoyuan, a professor of anthropology and folk customs at East China Normal University.
In the past, celebrations started as early as the La Ba Festival on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month or on the Kitchen God’s Festival on the 23rd day of the same month, lasting until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
Today, the holiday is usually shortened to a week from Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner
No matter how far from home they are, most Chinese try to return to their family for this end-of-year dinner, which may last through to midnight. Watching the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala is a more recent addition to this tradition.
Round foods, such as tangyuan (glutinous rice balls 汤圆), symbolize reunion.
Jiaozi (dumplings 饺子) are usually served at midnight in northern China. Sometimes coins are placed inside and those who find them will have good luck in the coming year, according to tradition.
Niangao (年糕) or rice cakes are preferred in southern China, as this sounds the same as annual improvement, nian nian gao sheng (年年高升).
Some dishes are essentials, and the sound of the name is an important factor.
Fish is a must-have as yu (鱼) or fish and yu (余) or abundance sound the same. Serving fish symbolizes nian nian you yu (年年有余) — having more than needed every year.
Other lucky foods include peanuts for longevity, tofu for luck for the whole family and jujubes for the early arrival of spring.
And it is not a good form to clear your plate entirely. Always leave a little as this suggests abundance in the coming year.
Bai nian 拜年
Making courtesy visits
Calling on older relatives and friends fills much of the Spring Festival schedule. People put on new clothes and begin visits on New Year’s Day.
Tradition calls for families to visit the husband’s relatives on the first day, the wife’s family on the second day, and distant relatives and friends on the days that follow.
Adults give yasuiqian (压岁钱), lucky money, in red envelopes, hongbao (红包), to children. Odd numbers are usually avoided except for 5, which is considered auspicious. The number 4 symbolizes extremely bad luck because it sounds similar to “death” or si (死). Lucky money is supposed to protect recipients in the coming year.
Things you should do ...
NEW Year’s Eve
Chinese families give their homes a thorough clean, considering it “sweeping away the dust of the past year.” Homes are decorated with red or gold paper cutouts of auspicious couplets and symbols and the big family meals are held.
• New Year’s Day
Many people get up early and set off more firecrackers to welcome the new year before beginning the rounds of visits. Traditionally, the elderly give out hongbao of lucky cash to children for good luck and good health.
• Second day
Couples should visit the wife’s parents where they eat lunch before returning home for dinner. In some places, it’s traditional to buy fish and set them free in rivers and ponds to earn merit through good deeds.
• Third day
It’s time to get rid of rubbish and waste accumulated since New Year’s Eve. This symbolizes sweeping away the spirit of poverty.
• Fourth day
This is the day to invite the God of Wealth into your home where he will celebrate his birthday on the fifth day. Firecrackers are set off at doorways at midnight and windows are opened to welcome him.
• Fifth Day
This is called po wu ri, meaning breaking five day. Firecrackers are set off in the morning to drive the five bad things — evil, monsters, disaster, sickness and poverty — from the house.
• Fifteenth day
The 15h day is celebrated as Yuanxiao Festival or the Lantern Festival. It marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Tangyuan — a sweet glutinous rice ball in a soup — are eaten.
Temple fairs are one of the most important activities in some regions on this day.
... And things you shouldn’t
• New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve, only positive and lucky words are permitted. Negative words such as “no,” “empty,” “lost” and “broken” are strictly forbidden. People should say “youle,” meaning “I have had enough,” rather than “buyao” — meaning “no” — to decline more food. A broken dumpling is described as “zhengle,” meaning earning, rather than “pole,” which means broken.
• New Year’s Day
There are many taboos on the first day of the year.
Don’t sweep, lest good luck is swept away.
Don’t wash your hair as in Chinese hair — fa — has the same pronunciation as fa in facai (发财), which means “to become wealthy.” Therefore, it’s not seen as a good thing to “wash your fortune away” at the beginning of the New Year.
In fact, don’t wash anything or take a bath, for fear you wash away good luck.
Also, don’t throw out water or garbage, lest fortune is poured away or thrown out.
Other don’ts include: don’t use any sharp-edged tools, in case they hurt the gods; don’t criticize other people, or you will fight with others the whole year.
Breaking anything is a bad sign. If it happens, you should say “sui sui ping an” (safe every year 岁岁平安), since the pronunciation is the same as “break” (碎).
Money should not be lent on New Year’s Day and all debts should be repaid by New Year’s Eve. If someone owes you money, do not ask for it on the first day of the new year. Anyone who does so is said to be unlucky all year.
• Third day
The third day of the Spring Festival is considered an unlucky day to pay visits, as it is the day of chi gou — red dog — that causes quarrels.