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Candy, paper horses send Kitchen God to heaven
By Zhang Qian

Preparing sweet candy tonight for the Kitchen God with a sweet tooth is a tradition to help ensure a family’s good fortune and safety in the new year.

Ji Zao Jie, the Kitchen God Festival, is the day when the god who lives in the kitchen makes a year-end report to his boss, the Jade Emperor, just as many people do at the end of the year.

His report will determine the fortune of families that he has observed and protected throughout the year. In a simple and warm ceremony, with sweet candy and sacrifices, families encourage him to put in a good word for them.

The Kitchen God Festival is celebrated in the 12th month in the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, but on different days by different groups — the 23rd for officials’ families, the 24th for ordinary families, and the 25th for families living on boats.

Most Chinese families observe the festival on the 23rd, which this year falls today.

The Kitchen God governs the hearth — the heart of the kitchen and the family in Chinese culture — and he is worshipped as the protector of the entire household.

A statue or painting of the god is usually placed to the north or east in the kitchen and decorated with a couplet, a line of verse on each side of him. These ask him to report favorably in heaven while protecting the family in the world of men. In some regions, the Kitchen God is depicted as an old man accompanied by his old wife.

On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, the Kitchen God departs the kitchen for the heavenly palace. He returns to the hearth on Lunar New Year’s Eve.

The family typically spreads melted candy, zao tang (literally “oven candy”), on the Kitchen God’s mouth to make sure he speaks only sweet words about the family.

To further induce him to report favorably, most traditional families offer sacrifices at the god’s statue or painting at dusk. Some make a paper horse to carry the god to heaven, along with fodder for the horse. A painting of the Kitchen God, his horse and straw fodder are burned, sending him happily to heaven.

On New Year’s Eve, a new picture of the god is placed on the wall and incense is burned to welcome him back. While the observant god is absent in the kitchen, people may indulge themselves in food, drink and gambling.

Women are traditionally excluded from the entire ceremony, though they spend the most time in the kitchen. This is because males traditionally make all family offerings and, according to some legends, the Kitchen God is handsome and might flirt with women.

There are several stories about the origin of the Kitchen God before he became immortal. Some legends describe him as a handsome man in red clothing. Some say he invented a simple way to start a wood fire using a drill. Some say he was a mason surnamed Zhang who was skilled at building kitchen ovens.

The kitchen candy or zao tang that sweetens the god’s mouth is a popular festival snack. It’s usually made of sticky malt sugar shaped into sticks or flattened into round pieces. When cooled, it gets hard and tastes crunchy.

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