Lunar New Year (or Chinese New Year) is just around the corner. While I’m fortunate that I do not need to do a lot of the preparatory work, it is a festive event that we, together many Chinese throughout the world, are excited about. I am putting together some of the information related to the Lunar New Year so that we can share with our kids and have a better understanding of the Chinese culture and customs.
The Chinese New Year Story
Long ago in China, there was one horrifying monster that came out on the same day each year to eat people. This monster was named Nian (年), and the people marked the end of a year by his visits to the human civilization. That is where the Chinese word for year (年) came from.
This monster was the most feared by the people because every time it came out, a whole village would be destroyed at a time. So, every time the monster came, people would pack up all their belongings and hid in the mountain, not wanting to be eaten. This happened for many years until a wise man thought up a plan to scare the monster away.
This man proposed that the people should light bamboo. The bamboo would crack and make a lot of noise, possibly scaring the monster away. The villagers thought this was a very good idea and started to light the bamboo. The noise was tremendous. The monster was scared by the loud noise and ran back to its cave without eating any people.
The next morning, everyone was present. They were all elated. The people congratulated each other for executing the plan effectively. So, from then on, people stayed up late, lit firecrackers (to simulate the lighting of the bamboo), and congratulated each other when the new year came.
The New Year Events
The Lunar New Year (农历新年) is the longest and most important festival for the Chinese. It is also known as the “Spring Festival” (春节); the start of the spring season in the Chinese calendar (农历).
The Chinese calendar is used to determine many of the traditional Chinese festivals. The first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar is known as “正月” when the Lunar New Year starts. The Lunar New Year lasts for 15 days and ends with the YuanXiao Festival (元宵节) on the 15th day.
Eve of Lunar New Year (除夕) is a day where families gather for their annual reunion dinner (团年饭). On the 7th day, which is known as “人日”, is considered everyone’s birthday. Many people celebrate this day, wishing that prosperity and goodness will continue into the rest of the year.
Origins of 人日:
NuWa (女娲) created the living things on earth, one on each day. She created human on the 7th day. Thus the 7th day of the 1st lunar month is also known as everybody's birthday.
The Chinese Calendar
Story of the 12 Zodiac Animals
There are several legends about how the animals were chosen for the zodiac in the Chinese calendar. This is one of them.
The Jade Emperor wanted to select twelve animals for the calendar. Upon hearing this, all the animals on earth rushed to the call, all wanting to be selected.
During that time, Cat and Rat were very close friends. When Cat and Rat heard about the race, they were very excited. They decided to go to the race together. But Cat was a sleepy head, often could not wake up on time. Thus he asked Rat to wake him up if he overslept. Rat readily agreed.
The next morning, Rat woke up very early, took his breakfast and went to the race without waking Cat up. On the way, he met Ox. He thought to himself "Ox is the fastest, strongest animal!" So Rat played a trick on the Ox. He asked Ox if he would like to listen to him sing. Rat opened his mouth but said nothing. After a while, Ox said, "Sorry Rat, I can't hear you." Rat told Ox to let him jump onto his back so that he could sing it more clearly, and the Ox agreed. Soon without knowing, the Ox was walking to the finishing line, forgetting Rat was on his back.
When they almost reached the finishing line, Rat jumped off and claimed first place. Ox ended up second. The rest of the animals arrived subsequently, and this is how the ranking of the twelve animals came to be: (1)Rat, (2)Ox, (3)Tiger, (4)Hare, (5)Dragon, (6)Snake, (7)Horse, (8)Ram, (9)Monkey, (10)Rooster, (11)Dog, (12)Pig.
Customs and Traditions
Customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Lunar New Year vary widely, even within China. Here are some of the commonly observed customs that we practise today:
1. The Chinese New Year is seen as the perfect time to do some spring cleaning. According to an ancient text (《吕氏春秋》), this practice started as early as the period of emperors YaoShun (尧舜). It was believed that cleaning house for the new year’s celebrations swept bad luck away and helped ensure good fortune in the year to come. Dirt in Chinese (尘土的“尘”) sounds the same as “Old” in Chinese (陈旧的“陈”). Thus by sweeping away the dirt, people hope to get rid of the unwanted bad things/ bad luck and start the new year afresh.
2．On the eve of Chinese New Year, all family members will come together, no matter where they are, and enjoy a feast (团年饭).
3. Red decorations are everywhere, because the color red is considered to be one of the luckiest colors of all. Older family members use red envelopes (红包) to give gifts of cash to their younger relatives. The red packet is also known as "压岁钱". It is believed that the red packets can suppress evil spirits as "岁" sounds the same as "祟" which means evil spirit. Thus children receiving red packets will survive the year peacefully.
4. 守岁is the practice of staying up until midnight on New Year's Eve as a family to greet the new year. It is in remembrance of the New Year legend to stay up in anticipation of conquering the evil and looking forward to good year ahead. For the children, the practice is also believed to extend one's parents' longevity.
5. During the Chinese New Year, people often greet each other by saying “auspicious phrases” thought to bring good luck. Couplets are also hang up on the doors or inside the house. Some examples are 恭喜发财，万事如意，身体健康，步步高升，一本万利，龙马精神，学业进步. Often, the word “福” is hung upside down, meaning prosperity (福) has arrived (倒 sounds like 到).
6. Traditional foods include fish (鱼), which is served at during New Year’s meal and symbolizes abundance (年年有余 as 鱼 sounds like余 which means abundance). Sticky fruitcake (年糕) is also one of the many favorites as “糕” sounds like “高”. It symbolizes improvement in every aspect of our life. Many restaurants have come up with many unique names for their specialty dishes that symbolizes good fortune.
7. On the 7th day, family and friends often gather together and celebrate "人日" with a dish of Yusheng (捞鱼生). There are standard ingredients in the dish. As people add in the various ingredients, they will say some auspicious phrases like these:
After all the ingredients have been add, that’s when the action starts. Everyone will put their chopsticks into the dish and toss the food as high as possible, symbolizes a better year ahead.
Craft for New Year decoration
Here are some simple craft that you can do together with your kids.
Fold 4 corners of a red packet.
Join 4 red packets together by stapling the corners together. Make 2 of these.
Attach a red packet horizontally to the bottom of one of structures that has been completed. Complete all 4 sides.
Attach another completed structure made earlier to the above to close up the lantern.
The completed lantern.
Fold a red packet into half horizontally, and cut as shown above.
Open it up.
Join 2 ends of the red packet to form a cylindrical shape. Tape them together.
Make a few and string them up together.
3. Fish decoration (年年有余)
Use a square red packet. If you can't find one, cut a rectangular one into the size of a square.
Then cut into the shape as shown above.
4. Fire crackers
Row the red packets into slim cylindrical.
Use a piece of red packet as backing, paste the cylinders in an inverted "V" shape.
Happy Lunar New Year everyone. May you have a blessed and prosperous year ahead.