Chinese and Lunar New Year

Notwithstanding the regional differences that exist in customs and traditions throughout China, the level of new year festivity there is comparable to that of Christmas in the U.S.  In general, houses are decorated in the celebrative red and gold rather than the Christmas red and green.  They are also adorned with peach blossoms and narcissus—symbols of longevity and prosperity respectively–instead of the Christmas tree and poinsettias.  Fruits like oranges, kumquat and pomelos complement the new year décor because they signify wealth and fortune.  Finally, spring couplets of  black caligraphy on vertical red paper are hung on entry gates and on walls throughout the house to express well wishes for good health and boundless fortune.

New Year, or more appropriately called Spring Festival (Chun Jié), is a time for family reunions and the New Year Eve’s dinner is especially sumptuous.  While a portion for every living member of the family is accounted for when preparing rice, his/her individual place setting is also kept vacant if absent.  Everyone stays up late to welcome the New Year, hoping to bring health and longevity to their elders.  At midnight, firecrackers are set off to chase away the evil spirits of the outgoing year.  Children bow to pay respect to their parents and elders.  In return, they receive “lucky money” in red envelopes (húngbao in Mandarin Chinese).  Elders also receive lucky money from their grown children, symbolizing well wishes for health and longevity.   In a way, this is like the Christmas gift exchange in Western culture.

For the Chinese, the new year is also a time to turn over a new leaf.  To prepare for it, houses are cleaned with every corner swept, debts paid, and disputes resolved.  On New Year’s Day, new clothes (including underwear) and new shoes are worn.  After paying homage to ancestors and reverance to the gods, the younger members of the family also pay respect to their living parents and elders.  For the first meal of the year, many Chinese eat steamed glutinous rice cake (nián gao) or steamed turnip cake (luó bo gao) while others solely consume vegetables.  In Mainland China, stores and restaurants are generally closed for seven days straight.   Many return to their home town to visit  families and relatives, primarily to exchange well wishes like gong xi fa cái.  The seventh day of the new year is traditionally everyone’s birthday (rén rí.)  Hence, one would add one year to his/her age on this special day.  The entire new year celebration ends on the 15th of the first month called the Laterns Festival (yuán shao) when many communities hold lantern competitions.  At the end of the competition, the elders get to take home a latern.  Therefore, the more lanterns one has collected over the years,  the more blessings one has in terms of longevity.

Sounds like a huge festivity, isn’t it?

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