Cultural Information: Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year, 新 年 (xin nian) or the Spring Festival 春節 (chun jie) is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. It consists of a period of celebrations, starting on New Year's Day, the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar and concludes with the Lantern Festival, on the fifteenth day of the calendar.

According to legend in ancient China, "Nian", a man-eating predatory beast from the mountains, could infiltrate houses silently. The Chinese were always very scared of this monster. They later learned that Nian was sensitive to loud noises and the color red, and so they scared it away with fireworks and the liberal use of the color red. "GuoNian" actually means "Passover the Nian". These customs led to the first New Year celebrations.

The New Year's celebrations lasts for 15 days. The first week is the most important and most often celebrated with visits to friends and family. This is a time to wish each other a blessed new year. Common expressions heard at this time are: "Gong Xi Fa Chai" 恭 喜 發 財 - wishing you prosperity; " Wan Shi Ru Yi" 萬 事 如 意 - May all your wishes come true. However, Chinese believe that on the third day (年 初 三) of the Chinese New Year it is not appropriate to visit family and friends, and call the day "chec hao" (赤口), meaning "easy to get into arguments".

Preparing for the New Year - In preparation of the New Year, the 28th day of the last month is set aside for the annual housecleaning. The belief is that it will get rid of bad luck and get ready to receive good fortune. Spring Couplets 對 聯, are put on the walls or on both sides of the doorway. They are short poems of good wishes written in Classical Chinese.


Spring Couplets

Symbolic flowers and fruits were used to decorate the house:

Peach blossom 桃花 - symbolize great beginnings
Chrysanthemum 菊花 - symbolize longevity

Mandarin Orange 柑 - the name of the fruit is phonetically similar to gold -- jin ju (金橘子) in Mandarin or kam (金) in Cantonese.

Reunion dinner - A reunion dinner is held on New Year’s Eve when members of the family, near and far, get together for celebration. The New Year's Eve dinner is very elaborate with a traditional menu. The meal includes steamed chicken with head and tail intact to symbolize "complete". Fish is served because fish 魚 (yu) is also the pronunciation for "surplus" 餘 (yu). Black moss, pronounced (fat choi) 髮菜 in Cantonese, is also featured in many dishes since its name sounds similar to "prosperity" 發財 (fat choy).

Most Chinese in Northern China serve dumplings as the main dish in this festive season. However, most Chinese around the world would do the same because it is believed that dumplings 餃子 (jiao zi) are wrapped in the semblance of gold nuggets used in ancient China. This gold nugget is called 金元寶 (jin yuan bao).

Dumplings 餃子 Gold nugget 金元寶

First day of the New Year - The first day 初一 (chu yi) is to welcome the gods of the heaven and earth. Many people abstain from meat consumption on the first day because it is believed that this will ensure long and happy lives.

Family members gather on the morning of New Year's Day. It is at this gathering that red envelopes 紅包 (hong bao) are given by senior members, usually married, to unmarried junior members of the family.

Red envelopes contain money in even numbers, like $2, $10, $20. These are also given to unmarried visitors but the sums are often smaller than those given to family members. Employers may also give red envelopes to their employees on the first working day after the festival.

Most importantly, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time where family members, in order of their seniority, will pay a visit to their senior member, usually their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. The venue of the Reunion Dinner is usually held at the eldest and most respected family member's residence.

Traditions - The red envelopes 紅 包 (hong bao) are passed out during the Chinese New Year's celebrations. Firecrackers and lion dances abound. The game of mahjong is played by some families. New clothing is worn on the first day. Some homes display a blooming peach or plum tree.

New Year's Markets - Markets are set up to sell New Year's related products. They feature floral products, toys, clothing, gifts and decorations for the home. The practice of shopping for the perfect plum or peach tree is similar to the Western tradition of buying a Christmas Tree.

Peach blossom tree.

Firecrackers - Firecrackers are usually displayed on a long string. They are cased in red paper, as red symbolizes luck. The loud popping noise created by the explosion is thought to scare away evil spirits. Today firecrackers are banned in many countries in Asia for safety reasons.

Fireworks - Fireworks are displayed to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Clothing - Red clothing is worn throughout the Chinese New Year, as red will scare away evil spirits and bad fortune. People also wear new clothes from head to toe to symbolize starting anew in the new year.

Money Given to Children - On the night of new year's eve, parents or grandparents usually put 壓歲錢 (ya sui qian) or "end of year money" under children's pillows. The most common story of the origin of this tradition is as follows:

There once was a monster called Sui (祟) which would come on the night of New Year's Eve (Chuxi) and touch the forehead of sleeping children. Once touched, children would loss their intelligence. To avoid this, parents usually stayed up the whole night to watch out for Sui (守祟, or 守歲). One couple decided to keep their son awake by having him play with coins wrapped in red paper. However, both the parents and the boy eventually fell asleep, with the paper-wrapped coins beside the boy's pillow. At night, Sui came in looking for the boy. The parents woke up, but it was too late for them to stop Sui. As Sui got close to the boy, a light flashed from the paper wrapped coins, scaring Sui away.

The next day, the story was spread throughout the village, and people believed that having coins wrapped in red paper would keep Sui away. Therefore it became a tradition to put money by the pillows of children on New Year's Eve and the money is then called Ya Sui Qian 壓歲錢 "end of the year money".

Food - Several foods are served to usher in wealth, happiness, and good fortune.

Chinese New Year's Cake "Niangao" 年糕 is one of them. There are many varieties of Niangao but they are all made of one important ingredient, glutinous rice. There is the savory Shanghai style, the thick glutinous rice paste is cut into small slices for stir fry or use in soup. Another variety is the sweet Cantonese Niangao. It is sweetened with brown or white sugar. The paste is then steamed in a cake pan. It may be eaten as is with the texture similar to cheese, or pan fried so that it is slightly crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside.

Another popular dish in Chaozhou and Shantou of China, Malaysia and Singapore is Yusheng 魚 生 (yu sheng) which is a Chinese-style raw fish salad. It usually consists of strips of raw fish (most commonly salmon) mixed with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments. "Yusheng" literally means "raw fish", which symbolizes abundance, prosperity and vitality.

Another variety of this dish is with the same colorful shredded vegetable without the raw fish, naming "Lo Hei" in Cantonese which means prosperity. It is a custom for families and friends to gather around the table and, on cue, toss the shredded ingredients with chopsticks while saying auspicious wishes 吉 祥 話 (Ji xiang Hua) to mark the start of a prosperous new year.

Typical ingredients are chosen for their color which may include: carrots, bean sprouts, green, red and/or yellow pepper, green onions, lettuce, red cabbage and toasted peanuts/almonds. Dressing is made of soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, sesame oil, and sweet chili sauce.

Lo Hei

Superstitions during the New Year period - To buy a pair of shoes is considered bad luck. The word "shoes" is a homonym for the word "rough" in Cantonese.

To buy a pair of pants is considered bad luck. The word "pants" is a homonym for the word "bitter" in Cantonese. (Although some perceive it to be positive as the word 'pants' in Cantonese could be a homonym for the word "wealth".)

To have a hair-cut is considered bad luck. The word "hair" is a homonym for the word "prosperity". Thus "cutting hair" could be perceived as "cutting your prosperity" in Cantonese.

Candy is eaten to ensure a "sweet" year.

To sweep the floor is considered bad luck, as it will sweep away the good fortune for the new year.

To take a bath is also considered bad luck as it will wash away the good fortune.

To talk about death is also considered bad luck.

To buy books is bad luck, because book is a homonym for the word "lose".

Opening windows and/or doors is considered to "bring in" the good luck of the new year.

This article is a modification from materials found in the Wikipedia article the Chinese New Year and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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