For most non-Chinese folks around the world, Chinese New Year is all about dancing dragons and Kung Pao chicken take away. Obviously there’s a bit more to than that. The country has been celebrating the lunar New Year festival for so many centuries almost everyone has lost count, and – as expected – things have changed a bit over the years.
Chinese New Year vs. Spring Festival
What began as a spring festival honoring new life is now simply a chance to relax, catch up with family and friends and indulge in some home cookin’. Many old school traditions are still observed, but thanks to a nearly 50-year Communist-mandated freeze, many aspects have slipped into obscurity – even the name. In 1996 the traditional Chinese New Year morphed into the more generic and politically-pleasing “Spring Festival.”
Chinese New Year via www.flickr.com
Chinese New Year 2016 begins on February 8 and marks the start of the Year of the Monkey, according to the Chinese Zodiac.
The festivities kick off two weeks prior. Week one is packed with visiting loved ones, while the second is all about preparations for the brilliant lantern festival. However, before anything can get underway, every single household in the country undergoes a massive overhaul.
Clean up – then get down
Bad luck, or huigi has a tendency to build up in the corners. As Chinese New Year is all about, health, wealth and abundance that old huigi can really bring down the party. Plus, only when the house is spic and span can the ancestors and deities be properly honored. Three days before the big celebration families bust out the brooms and dustpans and give their homes a thorough cleaning.
Red is the color of CNY via www.flickr.com
Afterward, all those dust bunnies are replaced with messages written on red (the color of good luck) paper or fancy scrolls bearing the characters for “Wealth” and “Happiness” among others. Some folks even go the extra mile and schedule a haircut.
Many symbols of the traditional celebration have held strong in modern times. For instance, red, which signifies fire, is said to keep unfriendly spirits at bay, so visitors should expect to be fairly bombarded by the vibrant color. It’s not at all unusual for families to dress head to toe in flaming new threads.
Yellow and orange are also lucky tones, but whatever you do don’t show up to a Chinese New Year celebration in black or white. The colors for bad luck and death respectively, this fashion faux pas is the quickest way to bring the shindig to a screeching halt.
The red theme carries through into other traditions as well. On New Year’s Day Chinese kiddos often wake to find red envelopes bursting with money and sweets stuffed under their pillows. The phrase “Kung Hei Fat Choi,” which roughly translates as “blessings for wealth,” is a common greeting for this day in particular.
Light Up the Night: Fireworks & the Lantern Festival
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the celebration (save for the Lantern festival) is the late night fireworks. Thought to frighten off pesky evil spirits, families stay up for hours shooting sparks into the night air.
Lantern Festival via www.flickr.com
The grand finale of the two week celebration is the huge lantern festival, which coincides with the full moon. These hand-painted paper lanterns often feature scenes from Chinese history and folk tales, and are hung in windows and carried throughout the town. The celebration culminates in the classic dragon dance. Young men are recruited for dancing duty, and hold the bamboo, paper and silk dragon high as they parade through the town, seeking donations and delighting the crowd.
Naturally, food is a crucial component to the New Year festivities. Throughout the first five days of the celebration, the Chinese consume tons of long noodles in hopes that they’ll translate into long life. Some dishes are even eaten simply because they have a lucky sounding name. For instance, fat choi, made of hair-like plants and pitch black, is an absolute must-eat for most Chinese families, and sounds like the phrase “get richer” in the local lingo. Often fat choi is served alongside ho shi, dehydrated oysters whose Chinese name bears a strong resemblance to the sounds for “good events.”
The last course in a traditional New Year’s feast is always fish – however it’s a feast for the eyes only. The word for fish in Chinese (yu) sounds exactly like “left” as in, you better hope there’s something left in your bank account after two weeks of partying. Placed on the table to serve as a reminder to go easy on those credit cards, the fish is granted a post-mortem reprieve to encourage the family to spend wisely.
On the final day of the festivities, everyone goes nuts on sweet rice cakes, or “go.” Shaped like the full moon (and eaten on the full moon) these glutinous cakes are shared amongst family and friends as a sign of unity. In this case the word “go” sounds similar to the word for “high.” For the Chinese, this translates as doing all things in life at the highest level; careers, education, etc