Chinese New Year–Part 1

Posted: 2013 年 12 月 31 日 in Chinese New Year
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  1. To the Chinese, the New Year is the festival of festivals, Christmas, New Year, Spring Cleaning, and Independence Day all rolled into one, with a bit of Halloween added for good measure. It is the time of the year when the past is dealt with and all things begin anew, when families gather to feast, pay respects to their forebears, and revel in togetherness as they await the dawning of the new spring with its promise—or at least hope—of better times to come.

  1. The custom of families gathering on New Year’s Eve and “keeping the night (守夜)” is tied in with an ancient legend about the “nien beast (年獸),” who once a year came roaring from the sea to lay waste to the land and devour the people and their animals. To protect themselves, families gathered together in their homes on the night of New Year’s Eve, shut their doors tightly, and ate, drank, and prayed—and generally had a good time, for after all this might be their last night on earth.

  1. The lucky ones who were still alive on the morning of New Year’s Day emerged cautiously from their homes to investigate the damage and see which of their neighbors were still among the living. Whenever they came across someone, they would say “Congratulations (恭喜)” to compliment them on having survived the night and the beast. And to this day, “Congratulations” is still the customary greeting extended to Chinese people during the New Year’s season.

  1. Because of this connection with the New Year, the name of the beast—nien—has come to be the Chinese word for “year.” And since the Chinese year is calculated according to the lunar calendar, the date of the Lunar New Year varies on the Gregorian calendar used in the West, usually falling around the last of January or in the first half of February.

  1. In the old days, the New Year season would last for an entire month or more. Almost a month before the day itself, families would begin making preparations—buying new clothes and furniture, giving the house a thorough cleaning, getting rid of all the old things that would no longer be needed, making ready all of the food and other things—“New Year’s goods (年貨)”—that would be required for the celebrations.

  1. The official beginning of the New Year season was on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month, called “La Pa (臘八),” literally meaning “the eighth day of the last month.” On this day, a sweet gruel made of such ingredients as glutinous rice, walnuts, lotus seeds, red beans, and other delicacies was prepared and consumed. This dish, known unsurprisingly as La Pa gruel (八寶粥), is still eaten today.

  1. The 16th day of the last lunar month is known as “Wei Ya (尾牙)”, or the Festival of the Last Tooth. (Traditionally, the second and sixteenth days of each lunar month are known as “tooth days,” and, in the past, were observed as excuses to dine a little better than usual.) This day is still kept religiously by companies and other organizations that take the occasion to give their employees a year-end banquet, although the date on which the feasting is held now varies widely.

  1. This banquet was once used to give employees notice, in a relatively painless way, that their services were no longer required. The whole chicken that was invariably part of the menu was placed on the table in such a way that its head pointed at the soon-to-be-unemployed person. If no one was to be “let go,” the head of the chicken was pointed at the boss.

  1. The 24th day of the 12th month is the time, in traditional Chinese belief, when all the gods stationed on earth to keep an eye on the doings of mortals returned to Heaven to make their reports. For the household, the most important of these deities was “the God of the Hearth (灶神),” who had the responsibility of reporting to his superiors on all that had transpired in the family during the past year. His report was crucial, for an unfavorable account could bring bad fortune upon the individual involved—even to the extent of shortening his or her life.

  1. The ever-resourceful and ever-pragmatic Chinese had an ingenious way of dealing with this situation. To sweeten the mouth of the Hearth God as he made his report, or perhaps to glue it shut if he had nothing sweet to say, they made glutinous rice sweets and smeared them over the mouth of the deity’s paper image that was pasted on the kitchen wall. Then, after suitable sacrifices were offered and devotional incense lighted, the image was taken down and burned to speed the god’s way to Heaven. This custom has not died out entirely, even today.

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