Chinese new year begins tomorrow, January 23. It’s the year of the dragon.
A Family Holiday
The Spring Festival (Chun Jie) beginning with Lunar New Year Day, is a family holiday. Family members return home to see parents and grandparents and to renew family ties. For many, it may be their only opportunity of the year. Much of Asia closes for this two-week period and very little business occurs. The Spring Festival period is the busiest time for the transportation and communications systems within China.
Nowadays, e-mails, text messaging, and mobile phone calls are replacing some of the traditional travel—However, the old attitude prevails: every person goes home for the Lunar New Year, sees friends and close relatives, or at least makes contact.
The Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout the People’s Republic of China, Asia, and in Chinatowns and Chinese communities throughout the world.
Fifteen Days of Celebration
Traditional Spring Festival practices include visits to temples, prayer, paying respects to parents and in-laws, withdrawing on some days for private observances, and arranging for a succession of rich banquets and vegetarian days. In more recent times, joyous public celebrations have been added: fireworks, concerts, acrobatic shows, parades, and exhibitions abound in many communities. Lavish fireworks in cities like Beijing and Shanghai make for grand celebrations.
The fifteen-day period ends with the Lantern Festival (p. 19). People carry lanterns, view lanterns, and stroll in the streets. Lanterns have grown to the size of large floats with glowing dragons, crabs, birds, figures, and pagodas.
Every attempt is made to perform auspicious actions before and after the start of the new year. As the old year ends, a family cleans house thoroughly, symbolically sweeping away lingering misfortunes from the old year. There is no cleaning on new year’s day to avoid sweeping away good luck.
Business people hurry to settle debts, for no one wishes to enter the new year encumbered, and all people are encouraged to settle grudges. As much as possible, everyone wishes to be free of any problems from the past, and to look forward to peace, happiness, and prosperity.
It’s important to avoid harsh words, anger, or arguments during Lunar New Year. Children are delighted because there is neither scolding nor punishment on the first day of a new year.
Windows and doors are decorated with paper cuts and couplets with good wishes for happiness, prosperity, and longevity. In particular, one can see the word for “happiness,” (fu) everywhere. People who can recognize a little Chinese are often puzzled why this word is displayed upside down in homes and store windows, but it symbolizes happiness pouring into our lives.
On Lunar New Year Eve all the members of the family gather for a rich feast. Traditional dishes include roast pork, duck, chicken, fish, and sweets. All the food must be perfect in appearance and taste, and poultry and fish must be served whole—having a “head and a tail” symbolizes being thorough and complete. The night ends with firecrackers to drive away evil spirits.
Early the next morning, children greet their parents and wish them happy new year. The parents hand out red envelopes with “lucky money” inside. The envelopes are decorated with wishes for happiness, long life, wealth, success, and the fulfillment of all wishes.
Married couples also give these red envelopes to the elderly, unmarried family members, and to children. Even numbers are favored for the amounts. The number eight is popular because it sounds like the word “wealth,” and the number six is popular because it sounds like the word for “flowing.”
Many things having to do with the Lunar New Year are red, which is considered a lucky color. (By contrast, white is avoided as unlucky— it’s worn at funerals.) Red represents joy, virtue, truth, sincerity, and the heart.