Monday, February 19, 2007


As mentioned in the previous post Chinese New Years is actually a 15 day festival. The customs, ceremonies and legends of this festival vary from one part of China to another, let alone from China to the overseas Chinese community. The customs will also vary due to religious commitment. But what follows is a more or less "typical" distillation of the events of the celebration.

The festival actually starts before the actual New Year on the 24th day of the 12 lunar month. On this day various gods ascend to heaven to pay their respects to the Jade Emperor, the supreme Daoist deity. Households burn ritual paper money to provide for the travel expenses of these gods. Malt sugar is smeared on the lips of the Kitchen God to ensure that he says only good things or nothing at all. The homes are then given a good "spring cleaning", and the bad luck is swept out. The brooms and dust pans are then put away until after the first day of the New Year so that the newly arriving good luck won't be swept out. The house is then decorated with paper scrolls inscribed with such things as "good fortune", "longevity", "spring time", "wealth", etc.. The most popular is a red diamond shaped banner inscribed with "good fortune" (pinyin "fu"). This is hung upside down as the word for "upside down" sounds similar to that of "arrive", and so it symbolizes the arrival of good luck. Many different floral decorations are also used in trimming up the house.

New Years Eve is the traditional time for the most important family gathering in Chinese culture. Like Christmas in Christian countries and Thanksgiving in the USA transportation systems are jammed as people try to return to their home village or neighbourhood for the celebration. The get together is usually held at the home of the most senior member of the family if possible. Families try and stay up at late as possible so as to welcome the New Year properly. It was once believed that doing so would ensure that one's parents lived a long life. During the meal and the following celebration red packets containing money are often given to the children and sometimes the elders. The amounts vary, but it is considered proper that the denominations be even numbers as odd numbers of money are given at funerals. A meal is sometimes set aside for the ancestors at the New Years' Eve table.

On New Year's Day itself the first order of business is paying respect to the same ancestors. Reverence is then paid to the gods, followed by the younger members of the family offering their respect to their elders. Visits are made first to one's most senior relatives and then to friends and neighbours. Dragon Dances and Lion Dances are held to drive the bad luck away.
On the second day of the New Year it is typically expected that married women will visit the homes of their parents. If it is a newlywed couple her husband must accompany her with gifts for her family. According to legend this is the day that all dogs become one year older, and so it is considered proper to be especially kind to dogs on this day. Sons in law are also expected to pay further respect to their inlaws on the next two days, but it is considered inappropriate to visit relatives on the third day as this is supposed to be a day when it is likely that people will quarrel. Families who have had a death of a relative in the preceding 3 years will use this day to visit the grave. Another interesting legend is that people should go to be early on the night of the third day because this is when the mice marry off their daughters, and the mice appreciate not having the ceremonies disturbed.

More tomorrow on day 3 of the New Year.

1 comment:

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Thank you for the information; I look forward to your tomorrow's post.