Archive for the ‘Chinese New Year’ Category

Chinese New Year–Part 2

Posted: 2013 年 12 月 31 日 in Chinese New Year
  1. The week before New Year’s Day is a very busy time. Since the gods are no longer ensconced in the house, furniture can be moved around and the house given a meticulous cleaning without fear of disturbing them. Final shopping is done and decorations are added. A favorite decoration for this season is the narcissus flower. It is especially prevalent on family altars, which are also customarily decorated with bowls of oranges (the word for which sounds like “good luck (吉)” in Chinese) and rich embellished with paper flowers.

  1. This is the time also for purchasing woodblock prints and pasting them at suitable places on the walls. Spring couplets, written in black or gold on strips of red (an auspicious color) paper, are procured and pasted above and on both sides of the main entrance to the house. The couplets express auspicious wishes for the coming year, especially good fortune, prosperity, and long life. Square pieces of red paper bearing auspicious single Chinese characters are also pasted around the house. Paper images of fiercely protective deities are pasted on the main entrance as well. These door gods are meant to ward off all sorts of evil influences.

  1. By New Year’s Eve most of the preparations have been completed and the family can relax and enjoy the fellowship and festivities of the occasion—unless, that is, there are bills to be paid. The New Year is one of the three occasions (the other two being the Dragon Boat and Moon Festivals), and the most important one, on which the Chinese are required to settle all their accounts. Woe to anyone who still owes money at this time and can be located by his creditors.

  1. Otherwise, all of the members of the family, which by this time have arrived home form wherever they might have been living or traveling, gather happily on the approach of dusk to pay respects and offer sacrifices to departed ancestors. Traditionally, the doors are sealed with strips of red paper and not opened again until an auspicious hour the following morning. The family is left alone to feast, and to provide a feast as well for its forebears with chicken, meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, rice, and wine placed on the altar. Paper sacrificial money, too, is burned for the use of the ancestors in the underworld.

  1. As the doors are opened again, firecrackers are ignited to celebrate the occasion and welcome the deities who are supposed to come down from Heaven at this time for a short visit. With all of these unseen spirits about, certain precautions must be taken at this time not to injure or offend them. Needles and knives must not be used for fear of pricking or cutting a god. Nothing inauspicious must be said for fear of upsetting one. A polite cough must be made before entering a bathroom so that any spirits inside may have opportunity to depart.

  1. To keep in whatever good luck has entered the house on this New Year’s Day, no sweeping is done and nothing is thrown out. No fires or cooking are allowed. Since the activities of the first can set the pattern for the entire year to follow, no quarreling or sharp words are allowed. Behavior must be at its very best. The morning of New Year’s Day is a time for visiting relatives and friends, and for burning incense to the gods at temples. Since so many people are out doing this; however, few are left at home to greet callers.

  1. The second day of the New Year is when wives take husbands and children to visit the homes of their own parents. This is a favorite day for children, since adults seeing them for the first time of the year must present them with gifts of “red envelopes (紅包).” The third day is a good time to stay home and avoid the God of Anger, who is believed to be abroad at this time, and the night of the fourth day is when food is left on the floor for the rats who are believed to get married at this time. Things generally return to normal on the fifth day, although the New Year’s season is not officially over until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month.

  1. In Taiwan today, many of these old customs have died out or survive only in weakened form. But the Lunar New Year is still by far the most important holiday of the year, the one time when people make every effort to be together with their families. The government grants a three-day holiday, which is frequently extended by a weekend, and many people take extra days off to lengthen their vacations. The Wei Ya banquet is still de rigueur, the families still get together for dinner on New Year’s Eve, children still expect—and receive—red envelopes filled with money, visits to relatives and friends still occupy many people on New Year’s Day, and married daughters still visit their parents on the second day of the New Year. Ancestors are still worshipped at this time of year, and most doors are still decorated with spring couplets. Firecrackers begin to sound as the night of New Year’s Eve deepens, reaching a steady crescendo at the approach of midnight.

  1. In the old days, practically every kind of commercial enterprise closed down for at least a week at New Year’s time. In Taiwan today, most offices, stores, and restaurants still close for at least three days; Taipei and other major cities are blessed with an unaccustomed quiet, many of their residents having returned to the countryside for the holidays. But there are also establishments that remain open right through the holidays: hotels, convenience stores, and fast-food restaurants, especially. In addition, vendors are concentrated on busy corners, offering fruits and other “New Year’s goods.” The establishments that close down for the festival open again after three days, five days, or more, invariably choosing an auspicious date and time for the event and announcing it with the thunderous roar of exploding firecrackers. After all of the doors are open again, things return to normal until the Chinese New Year, the festival of festivals, rolls around again.



Chinese New Year–Part 1

Posted: 2013 年 12 月 31 日 in Chinese New Year
  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.