Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in the year for Chinese and is celebrated all over the world.
According to the centuries old legend, at the time of the new year, a mythical beast called a Nian (年兽) would come on the first day of the year to eat crops, livestock, and especially children. A Nian lives under the sea, or in the mountains, and looks like an ox with a lion’s head. To protect themselves, villagers would put out food in front of their doors at the beginning of the year. It was believed that if the Nian ate the food they left out, they would not attack any more people.
The stories also include a wise man, who told the villagers that the Nian was afraid of 3 things: the colour red, loud noises, and fire. As a result, the villagers put a red board on their doors, hung out red lanterns, and set off fire crackers to drive the Nian away. The following morning, with the Nian safely chased off, the villagers celebrated, and the ritual was continued each year since.
In the past, it was important for the Chinese population to understand the right times of the year to plant crops or to sew seeds, so, to facilitate agriculture, the Emperor would be responsible for ensuring the accuracy of these dates, so that the people knew when to do what. The word Nian actually means “ripe grains” and dates back to bones inscribed with astronomical records from the Shang Dynasty (circa 14th Century B.C.E.) more than three thousand years ago. Together with the Winter Solstice, the New Year was the most important date in the agricultural calendar for the Chinese people.
Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, so does not have a fixed position in the Gregorian calendar that we use in the UK, but is normally found around the end of January or in February.
Many of the elements that are mentioned in the Nian legend are still present in the modern Chinese New Year Celebrations, as well as many other rituals that we might not be familiar with.
Before Chinese New Year starts, people prepare themselves and their houses. They will clean their houses, as it is believed that cleaning the house sweeps away bad luck from the preceding year. They will then put away the dustpan and brush to avoid sweeping away the good luck that the new year brings with it. People will cut their hair just before the new year too. It is considered very unlucky to cut your hair just after, as the word for hair (fa) sounds similar to the word for ‘prosperity’. Debts will also be paid off.
On the Eve of the New Year, the Reunion Dinner is held. This is traditionally a dinner of fish, and after the meal dumplings and new year cakes are made too. The dumplings symbolise wealth as they look like the ingots used as currency in China. Firecrackers were traditionally lit on this night (as described above) and the doors were then sealed until the morning.
Chinese New Year is actually 15 days long, each day with it’s own significance.
First day is for welcoming the deities of heaven and earth, and to honour one’s elders, so families often visit their oldest relatives. This is also the day to see the Lion Dance.
The second day was when married daughters visited their birth parents, relatives and close friends.
The third day is known as ‘red mouth’ or the God of the blazing wrath. It is seen as bad luck to socialise on this day.
The fifth day is the birthday of the god of Wealth. Firecrackers are let off to get his attention for the coming year.
The seventh day is Renri, (the common man’s birthday) when everyone gets a year older.
The eighth day is the eve of the birthday of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, celebrated with another family meal.
The ninth is the Jade Emperor’s Birthday, and an especially important day for the Hokkien people.
The tenth day is the day of the Jade Emperor’s party.
The thirteenth day is dedicated to Guan Yu (the Chinese god of War) who was a famous General in the Han dynasty. People also see him as the god of Wealth, or the god of Success. Traditionally, only vegetarian food is eaten on this day, to cleanse the stomach of the heavy food eaten over the past two weeks.
The fifteenth day is the day of the Lantern Festival, and is also a Chinese equivalent of Valentines Day. Rice dumplings are eaten on this day.
Red envelopes, usually containing money, are handed out throughout the New Year period. The red packets generally hold anything from a few pounds to several hundred. The amount of money in the red packet should be an even number from the first number eg. 60, or 80. (Odd numbers such as 30 or 50 would be appropriate for a funeral). It is also common for a red packet to contain a single note (£5 or £10 for example). The notes must be brand new, in order to bring good luck.
Some numbers are lucky. 8 sounds like ‘wealth’ and 6 sounds like ‘smooth’, so both are fortuitous for the year ahead.
Packets are usually given by married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors and children. Companies and managers may also give a symbolic red packet to their employees.
The story of the Animals
Each year in the Chinese calendar is connected to an animal. There are many versions of the origin story explaining why this is so, each having many variations, but essentially the story runs along these lines…
On his birthday, the Jade Emperor (or possibly Buddha) decided that all the animals will have a chance to be the markers of the passing seasons, and sent the word out that the first 12 animals to cross the river to reach him would win the race, and would be the 12 animals that made up the zodiac.
The cat and the rat were good friends, and both asked the Ox to carry them across the river. Half way across, the rat pushed the cat into the river. The cat survived, but did not make it across the river to become one of the 12 animals of the zodiac (this is why cats always chase rats, to punish them for this betrayal).
The Ox swam fast, and came into the lead. Just before he could get to the far side, the rat jumped off his head, and was the first to cross, with the Ox having been tricked out of first place. The strong tiger was the next to cross, with the agile rabbit being next, having hopped across the river on rocks and a floating log. The Dragon was the next to cross, as he had been delayed by making the rains fall for all the creatures of the earth, and also summoning the wind to push the rabbit’s log towards the shore.
The horse was the next to appear, but hidden on it’s hoof was the snake. The sudden appearance of the snake spooked the horse, allowing the snake to arrive before the horse, therefore claiming the sixth spot.
The goat, monkey and rooster came ashore next. They had worked together, with the goat finding a raft, and the monkey and rooster helping to clear it of weeds, and pull it ashore. The emperor named the goat the 8th, the monkey the 9th, and the rooster the 10th animal of the calendar.
The dog was the 11th animal to cross. He could not resist the temptation to play in the river, so he arrived later, despite being one of the best swimmers. He told the Emperor he had needed a long bath. Just as the Emperor was about to give up, an oink was heard, and the pig came ashore. The pig had gotten hungry during the race, had stopped for a feast, and fallen asleep. After the nap, the pig continued the race and came in 12th.