10 Things You Didn’t Know about Chinese New Year
I love that The Adventurous Mailbox is based abroad as it allows us to be able to send our adventure packages to kids covered with foreign stamps and postmarks. It also constantly inspires us to create new adventure books, cultural lessons in our Teacher’s Lounge, and content on Crameye’s World. We are especially lucky having our headquarters in Taiwan this time of year. With the entire island ramping up for Chinese New Year, we too are excited to visit our friends, gorge ourselves on hotpot and dumplings, set off some fireworks, and just take it a little easier for a week and spread some good cheer.
Before we start stuffing our faces, though, I thought I would offer a little background on the holiday celebrated by billions, but which many in the West don’t really know much about. Sure, there is dragon dancing and fireworks, but this holiday is not a one-off shebang like Western New Years. This holiday goes on for days and is a celebration of traditions thousands of years old. Walking down any lane in any city, surrounded by hanging lanterns and door fronts swathed in season’s greetings that were probably spoken by Confucius himself, lets you feel the cultural weight and importance of the celebration.
That said, if you ask any local what the holiday is all about, they will probably say the food. Or even the opportunity to take a well-deserved week off. It is simply a time for most to be happy amongst family and friends, and to face the new year with optimism and solidarity. Wearing, of course, red underwear.
Here are ten little nuggets about the Chinese New Year celebration that you perhaps didn’t know.
There is a long backstory
Chinese New Year has been celebrated for over 5000 years, and the origin of the celebration is a nasty, person-eating beast. Though the legend varies by region, essentially there was a monster named 年 (nián), which just happens to be the Chinese word for year, who lived in the mountains (or in the sea…). Every New Year’s Eve, the monster would come down and terrorize a village, slaughtering both the villagers and the livestock. Simply surviving another year was cause for celebration! In fact, when Chinese speakers today talk of the New Year celebration, they refer to it as 過年 (guó nián), which literally means making it past another year, or in this case, the monster.
There is a reason for the red
Lanterns, clothing, decorations… all red. And for good reason. The same legend of the New Years’ monster includes a strange beggar (again… varies by region) who one year came into the village that was suffering the attacks, telling them that he could help them. The color red, he explained, terrifies the beast, as does loud noises. If the villagers were to put red decorations on their doors and make loud noises, the monster would be scared away. Sure enough, it worked. This is why the color red is still seen on every door, and why firecrackers are let off all night long.
Here is a very cute and slightly scary video of the legend, great for watching with the kiddos.
There is a lot of prep work
Before the New Year, people sure are busy. Not only are students in the midst of semester exams, but adults are busy getting all of their ducks in a row. It is not good to enter the new year with unfinished business, so projects are finished up and debts are repaid.
There is also a lot of cleaning going on. Homes, cars, pets, and clothing all need to be sparkly clean as the new year is ushered in. Doing so will allow good fortune to settle in, now that all the yuckiness is washed away. Laundromats and pet salons are brimming with customers as the new year approaches, as are barbers, hair stylists, and carwashes. Though not followed by many anymore, it used to be a tradition that nothing could be cleaned over the duration of the holiday as this would wash away any good fortune that had found its way into one’s home. No dishes could be washed or showers taken until the week-long celebration was over! Many people will still not wash their hair on New Year’s Day, and hardly anyone would dare to get a haircut over the course of the holiday.
Here is a helpful note about cleaning your home before the celebration: When sweeping your home, be sure to sweep from the outside in, collecting any dust or whatnot in the center of the room. Do not sweep from the center of the room and then out the front door, as this will sweep away your good fortune and prosperity.
Lucky money is flowing
Lucky money is given to kids in red envelopes on New Year’s Day, and kids get as excited about it as kids in the West do about Christmas presents. Parents give it to their kids, as do their aunts and uncles or any adults that stop by to visit. (Cuteness Note: A couple years back, I spent the bulk of the holiday with my good friend’s family. After a huge meal on New Year’s Day, all of the kids put on special backpacks bought just for the occasion. Music was played, and the kids started marching around the room. When they passed close by, we put red envelopes into each of them, with the kids offering adorable auspicious sayings in return. Cutest thing ever.)
Though some of the money is reserved by their parents to help pay for the costs of cram schools, kids are allowed to have fun with it; malls are jam-packed over the holiday with families eager to spend their lucky money.
Kids aren’t the only ones to get some cash, though. Once established in a career, those very same kids should start giving red envelopes to their parents, while they get zip.
If giving lucky money, try to give an even number. Here in Taiwan, $800 (about US $20) is great gift for a kid that is not your own, as 8 is a very lucky number. Whatever you do, though, do not give any amount that contains a 4 in it. Four is the most unlucky number there is, as the Chinese words for four (四/sì) and die (死/sì) sound very similar. Many buildings, actually, do not have a fourth floor, and if an apartment building does have one, the rents are usually cheaper.
There is a whole lot of gambling going on
So, with all of that money flowing around, a lot of families will spend New Year’s Eve gambling late into the night. This is not high stakes stuff, but friendly games of poker or mahjong amongst family members. Picture a few tables set up, each with different games going on, with the TV on in the background showing some fireworks displays and famous people singing, with food set out everywhere. This is how a lot of families spend New Year’s Eve.
Red, as mentioned above, is a very lucky color. When gambling, many folks will be sure to wear red underwear as it will bring them good luck. Some people will even try to wear red underwear every day of the year if it is the year of their Chinese zodiac.
Things go upside down
On many doors during Chinese New Year, you will see two characters often affixed upside down. The reason being, it is a visual pun. Those two characters are 福 (fú), which means good fortune and luck, and 春 (chūn), which is the character for spring. They are affixed upside down because the word for that (倒/daò) sounds just like the word for arrive (到/daò). So, hanging these characters upside down is a visual way to say that good fortune or springtime has arrived to one’s home.
A whole lot of fish gets eaten
Eating a fish on New Year’s is a great way to bring prosperity into your life. Like above, the reason for this is rather punny. On New Year’s, people will speak warm greetings to one another as they visit each other’s homes, or bump into each other on the street. Some of the most common are 恭喜發財 (gōng xi fā cái / May you have great fortune and wealth!) and 歲歲平安 (suì suì píng ān / May you have peace at every age!). The one that started the fish eating tradition, though, is 年年有餘 (nián nián you yú), which means: May you have an abundance every year! That last character (餘 / yú) is the character for surplus or abundance, and is pronounced exactly like the character for fish (魚 / yú). So, eating a fish symbolizes always having more than you need!
Traditions vary all over the world
From house to house, region by region, traditions vary. Some houses have never heard of some superstitions, while other adhere strongly to them. Celebrated in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, each country will have slightly different traditions. Celebrations are also held in countries that have a lot of Chinese expats, like Australia, Canada, and the US. It truly is a global celebration as countries like South Korea and Japan also hold their own important festivals celebrating the Lunar New Year.
It lasts a loooong time
As mentioned above, Chinese New year is not a one-off big shebang. In fact, it is a 15-day celebration. Here is a breakdown on how the days are spent:
Day 1: After staying up late the night before, New Year’s Day is spent with families. This is also an important day to honor the elders in one’s family. Friends are also welcomed into the home and offered good stuff to eat. Red envelopes are passed out to kids, and in general it is a day of togetherness and shared hopes for health, wealth and prosperity. Don’t even think about touching a broom or getting a haircut, though.
Day 2: This is the day when married daughters will bring their families to visit their parents. It is a big travel day all of China and Taiwan. The day also just happens to be believed to be the birthday of dogs, so all pooches are pampered, both strays and those in the home.
Day 3: Evil spirits roam the Earth this day, and many will visit their family’s tomb. In reality, though, many families will be out shopping or marathoning movies at home. On this day, some businesses will start to reopen.
Day 4: Businesses start to hold big company dinners, gods are welcomed through offerings, and more businesses start to reopen.
Day 5: This is the birthday of the God of Wealth, and most businesses will be reopened and ready for business. Firecrackers are set off all day long to get the god’s attention as he passes over them, hopefully getting him to stop in and leave some prosperity. It is now totally okay to start sweeping the floors again.
Day 6: This day is spent visiting friends and making offerings in temples.
Day 7: This is the day when everyone ages one year, and is a good one to eat fish. Buddhists will also refrain from eating meat on this day. Funny side note: If a child is born this year on February 18th, he or she will be 1 year old (kids aren’t born here at age 0, they are born at 1). A week or so later after this 7th day of New Year’s, the child will age another year. So, just a little over a week on the Earth, and the little bugger is already considered two years old!
Day 8: This is the day dedicated to the Jade Emperor. Prayers are offered and families will have a special dinner at midnight (his birthday) to honor him.
Day 9: On the Jade Emperor’s actual birthday, altars are set up for him. Feasts are also held in his honor. The Jade Emperor, by the way, is ruler of all heavens (there are over 30 of them) and holds supreme over all other deities.
Days 10 -12: More feasting in honor of the Jade Emperor.
Day 13: After so much feasting, this 13th day is a day for people to go veggie. Time to cleanse!
Day 14: Preparations are made for the Lantern Festival.
Day 15: Yay! The Lantern Festival! One of the most beautiful things to experience. On this day of the first full moon since the festival began, lanterns are displayed and carried to temples. Many also write wishes on them and set them off into the air, burning up in the night sky. Everyone also eats a special soup called 湯圓(tāng yuán), which is a sweet soup with sticky balls of glutinous rice swimming inside.
There are still a couple days before the new year, so hurry up and clean your homes, stock the fridge with fish, and invest in some red skivvies!
Wishing you, your family and friends a happy and healthy Year of the Goat!