Chinese Lunar New Year has been celebrated for more than 4,000 years since, it is said, Emperor Shun ascended the throne on New Year’s Day and paid homage to Heaven and Earth.
But since then, festivities were marred by monsters called Nian (year) who terrorized people and gobbled them up; they were especially fond of eating succulent little children.
Nian lived in the mountains and every 365 days at dusk they descended on villages, devouring people and livestock. They returned at dawn.
For protection, people strengthened fences, huddled together as families and ate nian ye fan (New Year’s Eve dinner). Since they didn’t know whether they would survive the night, the meal was very rich, lest it be their last.
They worshipped ancestors and gods before dinner, pleading for protection. They stayed up all night, guarding against the monsters.
One New Year’s Eve, the rampaging monsters did not eat a newlywed couple who wore red, covered their windows in red and decorated their house in red. Children also found that monsters fled when they lighted bamboo that made loud cracking noises.
Villagers realized the monsters feared the color red, bright lights and cracking sounds. From then on, they decorated houses in red, wore red, lighted lanterns, set off firecrackers, and beat drums and gongs.
Thus, many customs arose.
The celebration is the most important of the year and family reunion is essential.
“The Chinese New Year celebration places 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.
The celebration used to start 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 month. It lasts until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
Today the holiday is usually shortened into a week from New Year’s Eve.
Nian ye fan 年夜饭
New Year’s Eve dinner
No matter how far from home, most Chinese try to rejoin their family for dinner, which may last to midnight. Round foods, such as cakes and dumplings, symbolize reunion. Watching the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala is a tradition.
The dinner takes days of preparation. Some courses are essential, including yu, or fish, because the pronunciation is similar to abundance. It symbolizes nian nian you yu, or having more than needed every year.
Jiaozi or dumplings are usually served at midnight in northern China. Sometimes round coins are placed inside dumplings and those who find them will have good luck and money in the coming year.
Niangao or rice cakes are preferred in southern China, as the pronunciation signifies annual improvements. Other lucky foods include peanuts for longevity, tofu for a whole lucky family, and jujubes for early spring.
People should not clear their plates, but always leave a little extra, suggesting abundance in the coming year.
Ji zu 祭祖
Before serving dinner to the family, some Chinese treat ancestors with offerings of food.
“This is time for all family members to remember the deceased and pray for ancestors’ blessings,” says 63-year-old Tang Qinzhen in suburban Jiading District. The ceremony is usually held on a lucky day close to the New Year’s Eve.
Alcohol, cigarettes and food offerings are placed on the dinner table, as well as two red candles and incense.
Lighting incense outside guides ancestors home at the beginning of the ceremony. Paper money is burned and liquor is sprinkled. The family kneels to pray for good luck and blessings in the coming year.
All food offerings should be lightly touched by the cooking flame to ward off evil. The family eats the food offerings considered blessed.
Bai nian 拜年
Making courtesy visits
Calling on older relatives and friends fills the schedule. People wear new clothes and begin visits on Lunar New Year’s Day.
Tradition calls for visiting relatives of father’s family clan on the first day, visiting relatives-in-law on the second day, and visiting distant relatives and friends on following days.
Adults give ya sui qian (lucky money) in red envelopes to visiting children. Odd numbers are usually avoided except for “5” which is considered auspicious. Number “4” is extremely bad luck because it sounds similar to “death.” Some parents put lucky money under children’s pillows on New Year’s Eve. Lucky money is supposed to protect them in the new year.
Greeting cards and messages free most people from many visits, but visiting direct family members is still necessary.