The Lunar New Year
For Chinese, in China and in ethnic communities around the world, the lunar new year is the most important and most festive holiday of the year. Through centuries of China’s agrarian tradition, this was the one period when farmers could rest from their work in the fields. Family members from near and far would travel to be with loved ones in time to usher out the old year and welcome in the new, with great celebratory flourish. With a calendar dating from the third millennium BCE, the Chinese people have for thousands of years been building on ancient customs of New Year celebrations. Although they may vary from region to region, village to village, and even family to family according to social position, many of these customs are still observed. Today, all over China, during what is now commonly referred to as the Spring Festival, passenger trains, buses, and river boats are packed with holiday travelers; shops do a flurry of business selling gifts, new clothes, and festive foods; kitchens are bustling with preparations for elaborate feasts; and streets are filled with the sounds of firecrackers and seasonal greetings.
New Year Festivities
The custom of some families was to wait until the first day of the year (nian chuyi) to ceremoniously open the main gate or door. It was at this time that the male head of the house in many educated households would write auspicious characters or phrases to be hung at the entrance to the home. Some also waited for this day to approach the ancestral altar for seasonal rites, and to perform ritual ketou. Children in some households awoke the morning of New Year’s Day to find hong bao (red envelopes) under their pillows.
On New Year’s Day and for the next several days, people still follow the custom of exchanging visits — with close relatives first, then with distant relatives and friends. Traditionally, the order of these visits also began with the eldest, and the first day was usually devoted to paternal family relatives. One old superstition was that women shouldn’t go out to visit on the first day, because the household luck might go out with them. In some areas the second day was the day wives went home to visit their natal families, taking children to see their maternal grandparents. During these New Year’s visits (bainian), children and the unmarried younger generation would again receivehongbao. Some Cantonese once believed it risky to visit friends on the second day because they feared that the slightest disagreement might portend a year full of arguments. Gifts are taken to friends and relatives alike, as are hongbao for both children and servants of the house being visited.
When friends visit, it is important to serve “lucky” food. One such dish is a platter of dates (zao), peanuts (huasheng), dried longans (guiyuan). and lotus seeds (lianzi). In the common Chinese linguistic practice of combining component parts of compound words to form a composite term, the dish is referred to as zaoshengguizi, or lianshengguizi, which respectively sound like phrases meaning “to soon realize the birth of noble sons,” and “the continuous birth of noble sons.” Peanuts are associated with fertility and longevity as well. Another “lucky” food is Yuan bao cha, a kind of tea named after silver ingots. Two popular sweets are zaogao, date cake made with ground dates added to flour, and a date filling, and a rice cake called niangao. The word for cake, gao, sounds like a term meaning “exalted” or “lofty,” and when preceded by the word for year (nian), is homophonous with a term that means to advance in an upwardly mobile fashion, year by year.
Just as use of lucky words and actions are encouraged at this time, so are there taboos. It is important, for instance, to avoid the number “four” (si), because it sounds like the word for death; any words and their homonyms related to death, illness, or bankruptcy are inauspicious. Kitchen work and sewing are avoided because use of knives, scissors, needles, and other sharp objects is strictly discouraged. Traditionally, one did not pick up a broom on New Year’s Day for fear of accidentally sweeping good luck out the door, and even the sight of one might portend a year full of housekeeping drudgery.
In the days after the new year, it is common to make pilgrimages to temples, especially nowadays for residents of Hong Kong. Theater groups and acrobatic troupes perform in the streets at marketplaces, on temple grounds, or at large public stadiums. Dragon dances, lion dances, stilt-walking performances, and folk pageantry are still particularly popular. In contemporary China, many parents take their children on outings to the park, the zoo, or the movies.
A major holiday for students, workers, and businesses, New Year’s brings virtual suspension of routine activity. Many shops, factories, and offices remain closed for the first few days of the year. In the Canton area, it was once considered especially unprofitable for a shoe store or shoe repair stall to reopen before the entire holiday mason was pasted. The Cantonese word for shoe (hai) sounds like a common expression of grief, and to some signified a bad omen, so no one wanted anything to do with shoes at such a happy time. Even Hong Kong harbor is uncharacteristically quiet at New Year’s. Many fishing and other commercial boats are anchored on New Year’s Eve and sit idle until the first auspicious day of the year for sailing.
Traditionally, a Chinese person counts his or her age by starting on the day of birth with “one.” For every new year observed after that, another year is added. Individuals still celebrate their own natal anniversaries, but do not count themselves one year older until they pass another New Year. For Cantonese, the seventh day of the first month is “Human’s Day,” a day that is observed as everybody’s additional birthday.