Chinese Spring Festival, or Lunar New Year, has over 4, 000 years of history. It is the greatest festival for Chinese families to hold reunions. Dating back to the Shang Dynasty, Spring Festival comprises colorful activities.
It is the custom of the Chinese to present offerings to ancestors in the last month of the Chinese lunar calendar, with people doing utter cleaning, having bathed, and so on. Gradually, people commence honoring different deities as well on that occasion, when all the farm works are completed. Therefore, the sacrificing time was altered based on the farming schedule and began to be fixed from the Han Dynasty. The customs of worshipping deities and ancestors remain even though the ceremonies are not as grand as before. It is also the time that spring is coming, so people held all kinds of ceremonies to welcome it.
According to folk custom, this traditional holiday actually lasts from the 23rd day of the twelfth month to the 15th day of the first month (Lantern Festival) in the lunar calendar, which can be roughly divided into three periods: the days before the festival, the festival days and the days after the New Year Day, with various rituals conducted in each phase.
The 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month is regarded as Preliminary Eve when people used to offer sacrifice to the kitchen god. However, in modern times, most families, particularly those living in urban areas, simply make delicious food to enjoy themselves.
Individuals start to prepare for the coming New Year following the Preliminary Eve, which is called “Seeing the New Year in” as well.
Cleaning and Purchasing
Prior to the Chinese New Year, cleaning is usually done in Chinese culture, including the grounds, the walls, and every corner of the house. The origin of this ritual is that in Chinese, the pronunciation of “Dust” resembles that of the word “old” (Chen). Therefore, cleaning means a farewell to bad luck or the old stuff to embrace a new start.
Meanwhile, people tend to buy new items, especially new clothes for the coming festival, a gesture to welcome new things and get ready for a new year.
Chinese couplets are usually pasted on doorways as a symbol to celebrate the New Year, with the original form being “Taofu”, a piece of peach wood to protect against evil spirits without any inscription. Later, In the Song Dynasty, people began to write antithetical couplets on the wood to express good wishes apart from the decorative function. Gradually, peach wood was replaced by red paper. And the form of the final couplet includes antithetical on the right and left sides of the door and a horizontal scroll hanging on the top.
Pasting the “Fu” and Paper Cut
The character “Fu” means good fortune in Chinese, symbolizing people’s good wishes for the future, therefore, people always paste it on gates or furniture during the Spring Festival. Pasting the “Fu” upside down, meaning the arrival of happiness, is a widely accepted convention among the Chinese. Other auspicious words or pictures are cut on red paper and pasted on windows to express good wishes for the future in the coming new year.
In ancient times, these characters and the patterns were written by hand, but now, they were typically replaced by printed ones.
New Year Paintings
New Year paintings originated in Tang Dynasty, with the purpose of casting the evils away through simple patterns, which also serve as a decoration for the festival, and the patterns of the pictures vary from region to region. Particularly in Taoism and folk customs, the Gate Gods, as one of the most popular gods, serve the role to guard houses. Ancient people used to paste their pictures on the door to bring safety to the houses by driving away evils. Now this custom still remains in most rural areas.
Chinese knots are typical decorations during the festival, which were originally used to string jade pendants on clothes and some musical instruments such as the flute, Xiao (a vertical bamboo flute), and so on. Now, these knots are used to express blessings and best wishes for other people.
New Year’s Eve & Day
These two occasions are viewed as the peak of the Spring Festival which is embodied by typical activities such as family reunion dinners, eating dumplings, staying up all night, setting off firecrackers, and so on. Besides, visiting relatives is common during the first day of the New Year.
Family Reunion Dinner
Family reunion dinner is the most important feast for the family to get together, particularly those who are not able to be with each other during the year due to various reasons. With all the family members sitting around the table and toasting best wishes for each other, the family is surrounded by a warm festive atmosphere.
The custom of staying up all night dates back to the Northern and Southern Dynasties as the product of an ancient legend. It was said that there was a fearsome demon called “Sui. ” Every year on New Year’s Eve, the demon would emerge to harm the children. Therefore, parents would keep the lights on and stay up the entire New Year’s Eve to keep the demon away.
The custom of giving lucky money to children was related to a story. A couple put eight coins in a red wrap before placing it below the child’s pillow accidentally on New Year’s Eve. When “Sui” was about to touch the child’s head to attack him, the eight coins magically beamed bright light and scared it away. It turned out that the eight coins were eight immortals who were secretly protecting the children. Therefore people named this money as “lucky money for New Year’s Day. ” And this custom passed from generation to generation.
Firecrackers and Fireworks
Firecrackers are always set off at 12 o’clock at the midnight to welcome the arrival of the new lunar year. The custom is associated with a fierce monster called “Nian” (year) who was believed to eat human beings. Firstly, people were scared of it so they hid in the evening when the creature emerged. Later, it turned out that “Nian” was afraid of the red color, fire and loud sounds. Accordingly, people threw bamboo into the fire to drive the monster away. After the invention of gunpowder, bamboo was replaced by firecrackers nearly 2, 000 years ago. In folk culture, the Spring Festival is also named “Guo Nian” (meaning “passing a year”) and the custom of using red color and setting off fireworks exists till now.
The typical food during the spring festival is the dumpling (Jiaozi), especially in northern China. Made with flour and stuffed with different fillings, dumplings are usually shared by the family members on the Eve of the Spring Festival. Resembling the Chinese Yuanbao, money used in ancient times, dumplings are considered to bring people wealth in the coming year. Sometimes, people put coins, candy, peanuts, or chestnuts randomly in some of the dumplings, and the people who accidentally eat them are believed to be blessed. For example, a coin means wealth, candy for sweet life, peanuts stand for health and longevity, and chestnuts symbolize vigor. In addition to New Year’s Eve, it is also a convention in many regions of China for people to eat dumplings on Jan.1st and Jan.15th of the lunar calendar.
Paying New Year’s Visits
It is customary for individuals to visit their relatives to express good wishes to each other at the beginning of the lunar new year. In ancient times, younger people were required to salute the elderly by kowtow; however, today they salute them simply by offering good wishes. And the older generation gives them lucky money wrapped in red paper in return.
People usually drop in at relatives’ and friends’ houses, greeting one another with “Happy New Year”. In certain big extended families in rural areas, this activity lasts for several days. It is common for people to visit others with gifts such as local products, fruits, desserts, wines, and so on. Although in modern society some people tend to send greetings by telephone or e-mail, the convention of paying visits still prevails.
Being another convention in the Spring Festival, temple fairs were primarily a worship of temples, but now they turn into carnivals that can be held in parks, including activities such as dragon dances, lion dances, stilt walking, worship dances, Chinese magic and other kinds of traditional folk art. In addition, people can purchase all kinds of daily merchandise at reasonable prices.
Various snacks, such as sugarcoated haws and roasted skewered mutton are popular food in joyful temple fairs.
In certain regions, particularly in Beijing, temple fairs are held almost every day in different places such as Wangfujing, Altar of the Earth, and Dragon Pool Park during and after Spring Festival.
Burning Incense at a Temple
On the first day of the lunar New Year, people usually go to the temple to burn incense which is believed to bring the whole family good fortune in the coming year, making New Year wishes come true. On the fifth day of the Spring Festival, temples are crowded with individuals who worship Kuan Kung, the God of Wealth by presenting fruits and various foods or by burning worship paper.