WASHINGTON, February 3, 2014 – The Year of the Horse started on January 31. The Spring Festival is the longest and the most important of all Chinese holidays and all Chinese, and countless other non-Chinese, throughout the world observe this holiday. It has no religious significance; it is a celebration of continuity and family life, dedicated to harmony and prosperity – to the Chinese, the occasion represents the time when everyone becomes one year older – age is calculated by the year, not the date of birth.
Everyone knows that a Chinese New Year celebration starts with a bang (of firecrackers). Legend has it that early in the era of human existence a monster would appear at the end of the winter to devour villagers. With a valiant effort, the people would drive off the monster with bright torches and loud noises, which evolved into the firecracker celebrations of today.
Preparations for the Spring Festival start long before lighting the fuses of explosive devices. Near the end of the final month of the year, all families begin cleaning, then cooking food for offerings to ancestors and Gods. On the 24th day of the 12th month, the Kitchen God departs the earth to relate to the Jade Emperor in Heaven the deeds of each family during the past year. Virtuous families will be rewarded, while sinners receive misfortunes.
People resort to various measures to ensure a prosperous New Year. Some families bribe the Kitchen God with sweets, so he will say sweet (good) words about them. Others try to silence the Kitchen God by offering him sticky rice cakes, so as to glue his mouth shut. Many people offered potent wine in the hope of getting the Kitchen God inebriated, so that he cannot deliver accurate accounts of their misdeeds. The goal is to take preventive maintenance measures, avoid unpleasantness, and start the New Year on a good note.
The major housecleaning sweep away bad luck, so as not to carry it into the New Year. Fresh flowers and red papers decorate the household, giving it a healthy and vibrant look. Red is an eye-catching color and denotes greatness. People, especially children, don new clothing with red as the dominant color. Miniature orange trees and jade plants are also favorite decorations around the house. The bright yellow orange symbolizes gold, the precious metal and, combined with the much-coveted jade, represent prosperity. The jade is also valued for its mythical power to ward off evil spirits. The word “fortune” is written on red paper, and hung upside down on the exterior door; because the word for “upside down” in Chinese is phonetically synonymous with the word “arrive” – thus, “fortune” arrives into the household.
Cooking large amounts of food is necessary to ensure plenty of leftovers, signifying that the coming year will be a year of plenty. One frequently-prepared dish is a whole fish, because the Chinese word for “fish” sounds the same as the word for “abundance.” A fish, with head and tail intact, symbolizes “plenty” from the beginning of the year to its end.
On New Year’s Eve, regardless of distance, a person must make it home for the family reunion; all shops and offices are closed so employees can be home for the traditional dinner feast. After a sumptuous multi-course meal, family members gather to tell stories, exchange the latest news about friends and relatives, and catch up on events of the past year. Often, it is the only time of the year when everyone sees each other. The family gamble and play games throughout the night, and the children are allowed to stay up late with the adults. Firecrackers, bright lights and loud noises are encouraged to scare off evil spirits and to portend a lively New Year.
Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, children pay respect to their parents, who in return hand out red envelopes containing money as gifts. Doors are opened wide to welcome “Good Fortune”. Special care is taken not to utter negative words, such as bad luck, death, sickness, or poverty. No housecleaning is allowed, to avoid sweeping “Good Fortune” away. Scissors and knives are hidden, so as not to cut up “Good Fortune” by mistake. Whatever happens during these first few days sets the tone for the remainder of the year.
On this first day, many families do not cook; they enjoy warmed-over food from the previous evening’s feast. Some families abstain from eating meat during this time of the year, so as to allow the animals – furred, finned and feathered – to also have an opportunity to celebrate the New Year.
This is a time when children make demands on their parents as their requests are seldom denied! Anything negative is to be avoided. The same can be said of beggars seeking alms. They too get to benefit from the festivities.
Lastly, on this day, families visit friends and relatives on the paternal side to exchange New Year’s greetings, gifts and red envelopes of money for the children.
Lion and dragon dances are prevalent in the streets on New Year’s Day. Dragons are the spirits of rain and abundance, and are welcomed by the people who need water for a good harvest. The lion is the symbol of prosperity; thus lion dancers are especially welcomed by merchants, who hold red envelopes of money for the dancers to grasp with their lions’ mouths. Sometimes, the lion dancers must prance through a gauntlet of exploding firecrackers and perform acrobatic feats to seize red envelopes placed in elevated locations.
On the second day of the New Year, families visit friends and relatives on the maternal side, and on the third day, everyone remains home as the Gods of Anger and Bad Luck take their turn to roam the streets. On the fourth day, the Kitchen God returns, and a new picture of him is hung on the wall. For merchants and offices, it is normally business as usual after the return of the Kitchen God. The seventh day of the New Year honors the creation of mankind, and friends gather for banquets to celebrate the occasion. The ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor and festive events are said to be conducted in honor of the occasion.
The Spring Festival officially ends on the 15th day of the first month of the year with the celebration of the Lantern Festival, commemorating the first full moon of the New Year. Communities hold competitions for the prettiest and most ingeniously designed lanterns. Some people conclude their celebrations by floating small candlelit boats on rivers, ponds, and creeks to help light up the New Year.