It goes without saying that Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival) is the most important date in the Chinese lunar calendar. During the celebrations, entire households spend a small fortune just on festivities alone. Businesses and other forms of work stop and everyone sets aside for at least 3 days to join in the celebrations.
Not only is Chinese New Year the most important festival, it is also the longest festival, lasting 15 days – the entire duration of a lunar phase. This is because the entire celebration itself adheres to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, and Chinese New Year is traditionally celebrated on the first day of the first month of the first year. Even with the diffusion of the Gregorian calendar into the Chinese culture, Chinese people still use the lunar calendar to determine other important festivals as well as auspicious dates (for marriage, childbirth and the like).
The Chinese lunar calendar itself is an extremely complicated creation, and it is based on lunar phases, equinoxes and solstices. There are 12 months in each lunar year, and each month alternates between 29 and 30 days. Because its system is totally different from the Gregorian system, Chinese New Year does not happen on the same day every year. Instead, it ranges from January 21st to February 20th. Most governments with a significant Chinese population usually use this as a basis to plan their holidays. Other than that, the lunar calendar is also famous for its zodiac signs. There are 12 signs altogether, one animal for each year and it moves in a cycle, repeating itself every 12 years. The 12 lucky animals to be included (in order) are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The story behind it:
Once upon a time the Emperor of Heaven, the Jade Emperor, decided that there should be a way of measuring time. He then initiated a race across a river – the first 12 animals to cross the river would then have the honor of being in the zodiac calendar. All the animals participated with gusto, especially the cat and the rat. The cat and the rat were good friends; however, they both could not swim. They decided to hop onto the ox’s back instead; he agreed. The cat and the rat immediately realized that the ox was a good choice when he took the lead with ease, navigating the waters without difficulty. The rat however, was cunning – he wanted to be the first. As they approached the bank, he rat pushed the cat into the water. Being unable to swim, all the cat could do was to struggle to keep afloat. After that, the rat jumped onto the bank and ran towards the Jade Emperor. He was the first to reach and therefore had the honor of being the first animal in the zodiac. The ox felt cheated, but he had no choice but to be content with second place.
The other animals also have their own stories of course, each about how they got to the finish line. These stories then contribute to the characteristics of people born in that year. For example, people born in the year of the rat will be quick-witted, enterprising and selfish; people born in the year of the ox will be friendly, genuine and apathetic. The year of 2013 happens to be the year of the snake, and its characteristics include being acute, cunning and proud. Some very traditional Chinese people go to the extent of planning to have their children in a certain year – boys born in the year of the dragon are highly favored.
Being a generally superstitious culture, the Chinese believe that if the first day of the New Year did not start out on the right foot, things would go disastrously wrong for the rest of the year. This is why many Chinese households adhere to strict traditions, to dispel bad luck and bring in prosperity instead. However, not all is grim and dreary – Chinese New Year is actually more of a joyous occasion than anything else. It is the time where the entire extended family gets together, the time for everyone to buy new clothes, the time to eat good food, and also the time to improve relationships with family and friends.
In all cultures across the world, every festivity has its own story. The story of Chinese New Year is an interesting one, and it explains many of the rituals and symbols used today.
A long time ago, monsters dominated the world. They were terrifying creatures, one especially, by the name of ‘Nian (年)’. At the end of every year, Nian would satisfy his hunger by eating humans – he had a special appetite for children. People feared this beast the most because every time he came out, whole villages would be destroyed at a time. Many brave warriors tried to slay the beast, but no one could come close to succeeding. In the end, villagers had no choice but to huddle up in their homes and tried not to be eaten. During one of those years, Nian was in an especially bad temper. One little boy however was not aware of the danger. He ran right out of the house and straight into Nian’s path. To everyone’s surprise, Nian did not eat the boy. Instead, he fled to the brink of the village, circling the perimeter but not daring to come in. The boy’s parents lit up a torch so that they could find their son and bring him back to the safety of their hut. In the process however, the torch lit up a firecracker. The loud explosion caused a horrific reaction in Nian. He howled with horror and ran away. The next morning, all the villagers were grateful to be alive. They thought about what it was exactly that spared them and in the end, concluded that Nian was afraid of the color red (the little boy wore striking red color clothes) and loud explosions. From then on, every village decorated their houses and wore clothes that were red. They also set off firecrackers with sounds as loud as possible. Nian was never seen again.
Nian (if he ever existed before), has probably died of old age now, but the traditions from long ago are still incorporated till today. Rituals and taboos are so abundant during this period that from now on let’s proceed according to the chronology. We will start a few weeks before Chinese New Year, because the preparations are just as important as the event itself. Preparations for Chinese New Year start way before the actual date as this is the time where families start buying items that contain good fortune and prosperity to decorate the house. Most items are red (remember the story of Nian); red banners with the words ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ (more on that later) are extremely common. Other than that, red packets are also bought in bulk so that there will be enough red packets (again, more on that later) to distribute during the whole 15 days of Chinese New Year. Finally, Chinese New Year Clothes are purchased. ‘A new change for the New Year’ is the general concept behind the brand new clothes.
Besides that, food too, plays a key role during this major celebration. Lucky foods include oranges, and they are purchased by the crates as they are considered to attract wealth. Pineapples are another fruit that is well received during Chinese New Year because its Chinese name literally translates to mean ‘Come, good luck’. Other than that, ‘Nian Gao’ (a sticky sweetish substance) is popular because it can also mean ‘Nian Nian Zhang Gao’, translated to mean ‘to grow bigger and taller every year’. Lastly, fish is eaten during family reunions. Fish is read as ‘Yu’ in Chinese, and ‘Yu’ can also mean abundance. ‘Nian Nian You Yu’ is a common phrase that means ‘to be in abundance every year’.
A very thorough spring cleaning is also carried out in anticipation of this day. The whole house from top to bottom will be cleaned thoroughly, from the windows and walls to the roof. This is because families aren’t allowed to sweep the house for the whole period of Chinese New Year. The reasoning behind this is to prevent any luck from being swept away. Chinese New Year decorations are set up too. Paintings of fish and oranges are highly favored, and they are hung up as decorations on all the walls. Paper pineapples are hung at the front doors too to enhance the chances of prosperity. Red banners and lanterns will be put up as well, again for the same reasons.
Now we move on to the actual celebrations, which start on Chinese New Year’s Eve itself. On this day, extended families (from the father’s side) will gather for a family reunion dinner. This dinner usually takes place in the grandparent’s house or the house of the most senior person in the family. Dinner includes all the ‘lucky foods’ mentioned above and will usually comprise of all the favorite dishes of the family. It is during this time that relatives bond with each other. It is also the ideal time for them to catch up on each other’s lives if they live far away. Firecrackers are set off at midnight, and the goal is to make as much noise as possible to scare away evil spirits (but more to usher in the New Year than anything these days). ‘Hong Pao’ is the largest and loudest of all the firecrackers. Adults and children alike participate whole heartedly in the celebrations. Some friendly gambling is also common during this period. Blackjack or poker is especially popular.
The first day of Chinese New Year is the liveliest one. Early in the morning, everybody wears new clothes. The clothes are always bright colored – black or other dark colors are frowned upon. This, in part, is attributed to the story of ‘Nian’ again. Children, teenagers or unmarried young adults will go up to all senior relatives to wish them ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’, which is translated to mean ‘May you be blessed with good fortune and prosperity’. This term will be heard very commonly throughout the whole 15 days of Chinese New Year as everyone wishes each other with this phrase. In fact, it is equivalent to the term ‘Merry Christmas’ on the 25th of December. After the children wish the elders ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’, elders will distribute the ‘angpows’ (red packets) to them. Money can be found in these ‘angpows’, and the money is thought to bring prosperity to the receiver of the red packet. The distributions of angpows are reciprocal (meaning that children in every family will receive a red packet from other families), so that both parties will receive good fortune. Married couples are the ones who distribute the red packets. However, if any bad luck has befallen the family (like the death of a relative), families refrain from handing out the red packets for three years.
Other than that, some families may hire a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. According to folklore, the art of lion dancing had started thousand years ago in China. In ancient days, the people found it difficult to meet the lion. So, the impression of the lion was ambiguous. Members of a trope hide under a lion costume topped off with a giant lion’s head. The head of the lion can be fully controlled – in some dances, the lion even blinks in time to the beat of the drums. The lion’s mouth can also open and close, and with very good reason to do so. While performing, people may place red packets in hard to reach places, and it is the job of the lion to get it while maintaining the movements of a lion. Professional lion dance troupes are extremely impressive; they consist of many people in the costume, and can perform extreme balancing feats. The drummers of the troupe are also highly skilled; some can play the beats to such a climax that people just start cheering. Overall, the best troupes bring the most entertainment factor to crowds of people.
Since Chinese New Year’s eve and the whole first day of Chinese New Year was spent visiting the father’s side of the family, the second day has been rightfully dedicated to the mother’s side. Traditionally, it was the only time where brides could visit their birth parents, relatives and friends. Again, relatives exchange ‘angpows’ to bring in good luck. Families also pray to all their gods and ancestors during this day. The second day is also known as the birthday of all dogs, so people are especially kind to their furry friends and feed them with extra food. The third day and the fourth day are basically saved for visiting houses of friends, but some conservative Chinese believe that visiting during these days will bring both parties bad luck. They believe that during these 2 days, evil spirits roam the earth, so going outdoors at all will be bad luck.
The 5th day is supposed to be the birthday of ‘Cai Shen Ye’, the God of Wealth. Therefore it is unwise to leave your house for too long in case ‘Cai Shen Ye’ decides to pay a visit. Business and shops normally reopen on that day and it is no longer considered bad luck to sweep the house. Governments also usually have school reopened by this time. Hence, even though there are traditionally 10 days left in Chinese New Year, the major festivities will have come to an end. The occasional business dinner or last minute visitings will still be conducted here and there, but nothing will be as grand as the first 3 days.
The last day of Chinese New Year is known as ‘Chap Goh Meh’, when translated means: ‘Fifteenth Night’. It is also known as the lantern festival, where everyone lights candles to guide the wayward sprits home. Crowds of people, families, and children will also walk the street with lanterns…it really is a sight when watched from a bird’s eye view. In Malaysia and Indonesia, this night is also dedicated to young ladies searching for a suitable love partner. Young ladies who believe in this will write their contact number on a mandarin orange, and throw it into a lake or river. Young men would then pick up the oranges and eat them. If the orange is sweet, that means that the relationship would go well; if sour, that means the man should probably steer clear from that woman. Due to pollution however, this particular idea is slowly dying out. Firecrackers will again be set off, and this marks the end of the year’s Chinese New Year.
If this is the first time you are hearing about Chinese New Year, then you definitely need to come check it out for yourself. The highly charged atmosphere of the whole celebration cannot be justified in writing alone – nothing can compare to receiving your first red packet (with real money!), cheering on the Lion Dance Troupe, or even being playfully nudged by the lion himself. In Malaysia, the best place for experiencing Chinese New Year will undoubtedly be in Georgetown, Penang. Thanks to its sizable population, celebrations here are especially boisterous. Penang City Hall or the Esplanade is where you want to be for the annual countdown gala. Local celebrities and dance troupes will be there to entertain the crowds, and the whole performance will be aired live on National TV.
Kek Lok Si temple in Penang will also hold its own celebration, lasting for 33 days starting a few days before Chinese New Year to a few days after. A total of 200,000 lightbulbs and 10,000 lanterns will be lit up to shed light on this century-old temple.
Around the same area, just a little way down from Esplanade or Penang City Hall, there will be a government held celebration as well on a few of the more famous streets like Armenien street, Chulia Stree and Ah Quee Street. For people who like cultural or heritage sites, this is the place to go for you to make the best of both worlds because Georgetown has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage City. This is also the opportunity for you to photograph some of the famous street arts by renown street artist, Ernest Zacharevic. Also, if you enjoying driving hard bargains and deals, this is the time for you to scout around as items are all on sales and promotions at almost any shops. Walk around at your own leisurely pace and just take in the sights.