For good luck, wealth, health and fortune.
Celebrated in Mainland China and countries with a Chinese diaspora, the Lunar New Year, which falls on 16 February to 2 March this year, is an important cultural festival for the Chinese community. The festival is believed to have roots in the Shang Dynasty (1,600 BC) and heralds the arrival of spring. Just like Christmas in the West, it is a time for families to get together, bond and be merry.
Like many ancient festivals, the Lunar New Year is steeped in myths and traditions, which differ slightly from region to region. Here are eight common rituals and customs, believed to usher in a prosperous New Year.
A few weeks before the festivities begin, families embark on a thorough cleaning of the house, a practice known as ‘sweeping the dust’, since dust (chen) is a homophone for old. Old things are put away or discarded to make way for new items and decorations, and every corner of the house is cleaned in the belief that it will drive out the bad and welcome the good.
The Reunion Dinner
An age-old tradition that has been around since ancient times, the reunion dinner is one of, if not the most important get-together meal of the entire year. Known as ‘tuan yuan fan’, it takes place on the eve of the Lunar New Year and is a good time for family members to bond, as many would have returned to their hometowns for the festivities. Dishes served at the dinner have symbolic meaning and are often associated with good fortune, wealth, health and success. Fish, or ‘yu’, for example, is a homophone for ‘abundant blessings’, while shrimp, or ‘ha’ in Cantonese, sounds like laughter, making it a dish befitting of a joyous occasion.
A new year marks new beginnings, so new clothes are worn to signify a fresh, clean start. There are those who choose to wear traditional clothing such as the qipao for women and samfu for men, but many Chinese families today wear Western-style clothes like dresses, skirts and pants. Red is the top choice, since it is an auspicious colour in Chinese culture and symbolises good luck, while black and white are frowned upon since they are the colours of mourning and represent misfortune. Dark colours should also be avoided.
The eve of Chinese New Year might just be the one night children don’t get yelled at for staying up late. This is because it is considered good practice to stay up for the whole night as a showcase of vitality and good health in the new year, whilst bidding goodbye to the old – a practice known as ‘shousui’, or ‘keeping watch for the year’. It is especially good if young people observe shousui, as it is believed children who do so will bring longevity to their parents and is therefore considered an act of filial piety.
Giving Red Packets
The Lunar New Year is an especially exciting time for the kids, as in lieu of gifts, the Chinese practice the giving of red packets called angpau, filled with money. Married people give angpau to children and unmarried members of the family. The amount varies, but it is usually an even number other than four, as it is a homophone for ‘death’. Bosses may also present angpaus to their employees as a token of good fortune. In recent years, technology has given rise to the digital angpau, allowing people to send money to friends and relatives through mobile applications.
Usually held at home before the reunion dinner, the practice involves the offering of joss sticks and prayer items, which are placed before the family ancestors’ memorial tablets as a sign of veneration and to keep them happy in the spiritual world. A variety of their favourite dishes, along with fruits, sweets, flowers and teas, are also presented. The family first invites the ancestors to join in the celebration by tossing ‘jiaobei’ – wooden crescent-shaped cups used in divination to indicate a yes or no answer. Once an affirmative ‘answer’ has been established, the reunion dinner can then begin.
It is customary to pay a visit to the homes of relatives and friends over Chinese New Year, a tradition known as ‘bai nian’. There are stipulated days to visit particular people. For couples, the first day is reserved for visiting the parents of the man, where they will offer tea to the elders and receive red packets. The second day will be for visiting the parents of the woman. The third until the 15th, which is the last day of the festival, will be for visiting other relatives and friends.
Repay All Your Debts
If you’ve forgotten to pay back the money you borrowed, better do it before the new year comes. The belief is that things you do at the start of the year set a precedent for coming months, so if you kick it off with debt, you’ll be in perpetual debt throughout the year. Similarly, lending money during this period is a big no-no!
Photo Credits: Red Packets