Spring Festival, or New Year, is the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar. Most Chinese festivals take place on dates in the lunar calendar, in which the first day of the month is the time when the moon is at its thinnest, with the full moon marking the middle of the month. So, by the Gregorian calendar, such festivals are on a different day every ear. Usually the Spring Festival is in late January or early February.
It almost penetrates everyone’s life and moulds the soul of every Chinese all over the world. Every time when it comes to the end of lunar year, people who are away from home hurry home to be with their families, and interesting new-year customs like staying up for the New Year, making dumplings (jiaozi), posting New Year couplets, making New Year visits, and many other things have become common habits of all Chinese people. The Spring Festival customs of the Chinese have also radiated to neighboring countries like Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, Janpan, etc. They celebrate New Year in similar ways.
Its origin is too old to be traced. Several explanations have been around. All agree, however, that the character Nian, which means year in modern Chinese , was originally the name of a monster beast which started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year.
One legend goes that the beast Nian had a very big mouth that would swallow a great many people with one bite. People were very scared. One day, an old man came to their rescue, offering to subdue Nian. He said to Nian, “I hear that you are very capable, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on earth in stead of people who are by no means of your worthy opponents?” So, it did swallow many of the beasts of prey on earth that also harassed people from time to time.
After that, the old man disappeared riding the beast Nian. He turned out to be an immortal. Now that Nian is gone and other beasts of prey are also scared into forests, people begin to enjoy their peaceful life. Before the old man left, he had told people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors and blow up firecrackers at each year’s end to scare away Nian in case it sneaked back again, because Nian was sensitive to loud noises and the color of red. From then on, the tradition of celebrating the conquest of Nian is carried on from generation to generation.
The term “guo nian”, which may literally mean “Survive the Nian”, becomes today “Celebrate the (New) Year” as the word “guo” in Chinese having both the meaning of “pass-over” and “observe”. The custom of putting up red paper and firing fire-crackers is still around. However, people today have long forgotten why they are doing all these, except that they feel the color and the sound add to the excitement of the celebrations.
Spring Festival is not just one day but includes many activities in the first lunar month. For the Chinese, Spring Festival celebration only comes to a rest after the 15th day of the first lunar month, when the Lantern Festival is spent. In fact, people start preparing for Spring Festival celebration from as early as the 23rd of the last lunar month of the previous year. During this time, all families are busy with overall cleaning, making special purchases for the festival, sticking paper-cuts on windows, hanging Near Year posters, writing New year couplets, cooking rice cakes, and making all sorts of foods, all in preparation to get rid of the old and welcome in the new. The night before New Year is called New Year’s Eve, which is an essentially important time for family gathering. Family members sit around a table, enjoy a sumptuous Hogmanay dinner, and then sit together to chat or play. Most of them stay up all night until next dawn, which is called Shou Sui in Chinese (waiting for New Year).
Children especially like spending Spring Festival because they can get money on Near Year’s Eve, which is called Ya Sui money. Ya Sui money is a new year given with good wishes. The money should be daintily put in a red paper bag and will be distributed to minor juniors by the elders after Hogmanay dinner or after the clock striking twelve at midnight. It is said that since year and the name of evil spirit sound the same (both are Sui in Chinese), Ya Sui money can keep evils away from juniors and ensure them a peaceful and healthy New Year.
After New Year’s Eve it is the first day of lunar new year. From that day on, people begin visiting relatives and friends, paying New Year visit to each other. Bai Nian (Chinese for making New Year visit) is an important custom of Spring Festival and is a way of ridding the old, welcome the New, and expressing good will to each other. On the one hand, it shows respect for the elders and love for relatives and friends. On the other hand, it is and activity for communication and deepening friendship. On these visits, people say something auspicious for happiness and health, wishing each other all the best the new year.
With the development of time, customs of spending Spring Festival have some changes. But this does not dampen the festive boisterousness. On New Year’s Eve, family are still getting together and having Hogmanay dinner while watching brilliant Spring Festival party until early morning. In the heart of all descendents of Chinese nation, Spring Festival is always the most important.
In Chinese astrology, each year is associated with a particular animal from a cycle of twelve: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. 2013 is the year of the snake. Next year, the Spring Festival will fall on 31 Jan. 2014, the year of Horse.
I will give you more introductions on the things Chinese may do around the New Year and traditional dishes for the New Year in the other articles. Stay tuned, please!