The Lunar New Year has certain variations from country to country, but they all include offerings to the household god(s), housecleaning and new clothes, a large banquet, ancestor worship, and firecrackers.
It is the most important and the longest of all Chinese festivals, celebrated by Chinese communities throughout the world. The festival, believed to date back to prehistory, marks the beginning of the new lunar cycle. It is also called the Spring Festival, since it falls between the WINTER SOLSTICE and VERNAL EQUINOX. It is the day when everyone becomes one year older—age is calculated by the year not the date of birth.
Activities begin in the 12th month, as people prepare food, clean their houses, settle debts, and buy new clothes. They also paste red papers with auspicious writings on the doors and windows of their homes.
On the 24th day of the 12th month, each Kitchen God leaves earth to report to the Jade Emperor in heaven on the activities of each family during the past year. To send their Kitchen God on his way, households burn paper money and joss sticks and give him offerings of wine. To make sure that his words to the Jade Emperor are sweet, they also offer tang kwa, a dumpling that finds its way into the mouths of eager children.
The eve of the new year is the high point of the festival when family members return home to honor their ancestors and enjoy a great feast. The food that is served has symbolic meaning. Abalone, for example, promises abundance; bean sprouts, prosperity; oysters, good business.
This is also a night of colossal noise; firecrackers explode and rockets whistle to frighten away devils. An old legend says that the lunar festival dates from the times when a wild beast (a nihn; also the Cantonese word for “year”) appeared at the end of winter to devour many villagers. After the people discovered that the beast feared bright lights, the color red, and noise, they protected themselves on the last day of the year by lighting up their houses, painting objects red, banging drums and gongs, and exploding bamboo “crackers.” The explosions go on till dawn, and continue sporadically for the next two weeks.
In Hong Kong, it is traditional after the feast to visit the flower markets. Flowers also have symbolic meaning, and gardeners try to ensure that peach and plum trees, which signify good luck, bloom on New Year's Day.
On the first day of the new year, household doors are thrown open to let good luck enter. Families go out to visit friends and worship at temples. Words are carefully watched to avoid saying anything that might signify death, sickness, or poverty. Scissors and knives aren't used for fear of “cutting” the good fortune, and brooms aren't used either, lest they sweep away good luck. Dragon and lion dances are performed, with 50 or more people supporting long paper dragons. There are acrobatic demonstrations and much beating of gongs and clashing of cymbals.
An ancient custom is giving little red packets of money (called hung-pao or lai see) to children and employees or service-people. The red signifies good fortune, and red is everywhere at this time.
On the third day of the holiday, families stay home, because it's supposed to be a time of bad luck. On the fourth day, local deities return to earth after a stay in heaven and are welcomed back with firecrackers and the burning of spirit money. According to legend, the seventh day is the anniversary of the creation of mankind, and the ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist deity. He is honored, not surprisingly, with firecrackers.
In most Asian countries, people return to work after the fourth or fifth day of celebration. In Taiwan, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and the two days following are public holidays, and all government offices, most businesses, restaurants, and stores are closed. The closings may continue for eight days.
By the 13th and 14th days, shops hang out lanterns for the Yuen Siu or LANTERN FESTIVAL, the day of the first full moon of the new year and the conclusion of the celebration.
In Chinese, the lunar new year is known as Ch'un Chieh, or “Spring Festival.” It was formerly called Yuan Tan, “the first morning,” but the name was changed when the Gregorian calendar was officially adopted by the Republic of China in 1912. To differentiate the Chinese new year from the Western new year, January 1 was designated Yuan Tan. Today in China and in other eastern nations, January 1 is a public holiday, but the Spring Festival is the much grander celebration.
Celebrations vary from country to country and region to region. In some towns in the countryside of Yunnan province in China, for example, an opera is performed by farmers. The Chinese communities in San Francisco and New York City are especially known for their exuberant and ear-splitting celebrations. In China, celebrations were banned from the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 until 1980 when dragons and lions once again appeared on the streets.
In Vietnam, where the holiday is called TET, the ancestors are believed to return to heaven on the fourth day, and everyone has to return to work. On the seventh day, the Cay Nev is removed from the front of the home. This is a high bamboo pole that was set up on the last day of the old year. On its top are red paper with inscriptions, wind chimes, a square of woven bamboo to stop evil spirits from entering, and a small basket with betel and areca nuts for the good spirits.
In Taiwan it is called Sang-Sin. Small horses and palanquins are cut from yellow paper and burned to serve as conveyances for the Kitchen God.
The New Year's feast is first laid before the ancestor shrine. About seven o'clock, after the ancestors have eaten, the food is gathered up, reheated, and eaten by the family. The greater the amount of food placed before the shrine, the greater will be the reward for the new year.
After the banquet, oranges are stacked in fives before the ancestor tablets and household gods. A dragon-bedecked red cloth is hung before the altar. The dragon is the spirit of rain and abundance, and the oranges are an invitation to the gods to share the family's feasting.
In Korea Je-sok, or Je-ya, is the name for New Year's Eve. Torches are lit in every part of the home, and everyone sits up all night to “defend the New Year” from evil spirits. In modern Seoul the church bells are rung 33 times at midnight. While the foods may vary, everyone, rich and poor alike, has duggook soup, made from rice and containing pheasant, chicken, meat, pinenuts, and chestnuts.
Many games are played. Among the most unusual is girls seesawing. In early times Korean men stopped some of the sterner sports and forbade women to have any outdoor exercises. Korean girls then took to using a seesaw behind their garden walls. But they do it standing up—so as to get a possible glimpse of their boyfriends, as they fly up and down.
In Okinawa's villages there is the custom of new water for Shogatsu, the new year. About five o'clock in the morning youngsters bring a teapot of fresh water to the homes of their relatives. There a cupful is placed on the Buddhist god shelf, or the fire god's shelf in the kitchen, and the first pot of tea is made from it.
See also LOSAR, NARCISSUS FESTIVAL, AND EOLLAL
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