Even though the climax of the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, lasts only three or five days, including the New Year’s Eve, the New Year season extends from the late twelfth month of the previous year to the middle of the first month of the new year. A month before the New Year is a good time for shopping. People will pour out their money to buy presents, decorations, food and clothing.
Days before the New Year, every household gives its house a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away all the ill-fortune there may have been to make way for the wishful in-coming good luck. People also give their doors and window-panes a new paint, usually in red color. They paste on their doors paper-cuts and spring couplets with the popular themes of “happiness”, “wealth”, “longevity” “officialdom,” and “satisfactory marriage with more children”. Paintings of the same themes are put up on the walls of their bedrooms.
The Eve of the New Year is very carefully observed. Supper is a feast, with all family members around a round table. An increasing number of families choose to have their New Year feast in a restaurant. The main course is jiaozi, dumplings boiled in water. Jiaozi means “the coming of the time of zi” in Chinese. Zi is a Dizhi symbol that marked the time of midnight, the beginning of a day. In this case, it is the day of a new year! After midnight, it is time for the whole family to sit up while having fun playing cards or board games, or simply chatting. Every light in the house is supposed to be kept on. When the clock strikes twelve, the entire sky will be lit up by fireworks and firecrackers. The light and cracking can make a whole city or village look and sound like a war zone. People’s excitement reaches its zenith.
At the daybreak of the New Year, children greet their parents and receive from them presents of cash wrapped up in red paper packages. Then, the family will extend their greetings from door to door, first to their relatives and then their neighbors. In the first few days of the New Year, people are visiting each other to express their New Year greetings. Since China has the second largest owners of cell-phones, sending short messages and making a call has increasingly taking the place of physical visits. New Year is a time of gift exchange. Gifts used to be more of monetary value. Today, flowers are becoming increasingly popular. The visits provide a great opportunity for reconciliation. Old grudges are very easily cast away during the greetings while the air is permeated with warmth, friendliness, and forgiveness.
The time before the Chinese New Year is also a good occasion to clear old debts. Traditionally, Chinese believed in self-sufficiency. Owing debts to others was a disgrace, a notion unthinkable to people in the modern world where credit is the order of the day.
For a traditional family, the Chinese New Year is loaded with taboos. Customs and superstitions vary from regions to regions. The following are snapshots of practices in some rural Chinese villages.
- People, especially adults, will stay up the night during the New Year’s Eve, with as many lights lit as possible inside and outside the house. This practice dubbed as “Observe the Night” is prevalent throughout the country. People expect gods to visit them and bring along with good luck. They fear that they may not be able to find their way in total darkness.
- Many people will paste a red-paper poster with an upside-down Chinese character fu (Happiness) written on it on places that would most likely catch people’s attention, such as the door. They would expect visitors to comment that it is posted “upside-down”. The pronunciation of “upside-down” in Chinese is the same as “comes” or “arrives.” The visitor’s unintentional utterance now becomes “Happiness comes (to your household),” a New Year greeting to the owner of the poster.
- Unruly kids will stumble into a lot of taboos. They should not speak bad or unlucky words. If they happened to blurt out some, an adult would waste no time wiping his or her mouth with toilet paper to annul the utterance
- Things white have to be covered up because white is the color of mourning in Chinese culture.
- Houses are thoroughly cleaned before the New Year’s Eve. No one is supposed to pick up the broom on the New Year’s Day for fear that he or she may sweep good luck and fortune out of his or her house. The New Year celebration reaches another climax 15 days from the New Year’s Day. It is the Festival of Lanterns, an occasion of lantern shows and folk dances everywhere in the country. One typical food for this festival is called tangyuan (ball-shaped dumplings in soup). It is made of glutinous rice rolled into shapes and sizes like ping-pong balls stuffed mostly with sweet and nutty fillings.
The Lantern Festival marks the end of the New Year season, and after it, life becomes daily routines once again.
Full acknowledgment and all credits to Haiwang Yuan for this article.